Despite current trends, Vikes remain grounded
Back in his playing days, Vikings coach Leslie Frazier was on a dominating defense that led the Chicago Bears to the Super Bowl XX win at the end of the 1985 season. The Monsters of the Midway could also count on the league's best running back – Walter Payton – on offense.
The question that has been asked of Frazier many times in the past few weeks is whether teams can still win in the NFL counting mostly on their ability to run the ball on offense and stop the run on defense. Is that philosophy still valid, or is Frazier living in the past with his desire to build his Minnesota Vikings in that image?
No doubt, Frazier would love for the Vikings to have a top-notch passing attack to complement his fourth-ranked running game, but grooming a young quarterback doesn't usually allow for that, as the Vikings' 28th-ranked passing offense will attest. Still, the Vikings have Adrian Peterson for the long term after signing him to a seven-year extension that could be worth as much as $100 million, with $36 million in guarantees.
Even after Peterson suffered torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments, Frazier and other Vikings brass were encouraged that he would be able to return for the start of the 2012 season and continued to promote the idea of the Vikings as a run-first offense.
"Very, very happy that we have Adrian Peterson as our running back and that we can build our offense around Adrian," Frazier said after the season. "It's going to be good for our team. It's going to be good for our defense, our offense, our special teams – the fact that we have Adrian as our guy. And it should help our quarterback."
Although Peterson's skills are rare, he has often been compared to Payton, but what do this season's playoff teams indicate about the value of a top-notch running game versus teams that can pass the ball in an undisputed era of aerial success in the NFL?
In general, the AFC has the market on run-first teams in the postseason while the NFC playoff survivors have some of the league's best passing attacks.
First, the run-first teams:
Denver has the top-ranked running game in the league, thanks in large part to quarterback Tim Tebow helping add significantly to that yardage-based ranking. The confounding quarterback added 660 yards rushing on a 5.4-yard average (the best among Broncos with more than 15 carries) and a Bronco-best six rushing touchdowns. But his initial playoff foray withstanding, Tebow and the Broncos finished the regular season with the 31st-ranked passing attack.
The AFC also boasted the league's second-best running attack with the Houston Texans. With Arian Foster's 1,224 yards in the regular season, the Texans survived the wild-card round without their main quarterback, injured Matt Schaub. With the second-ranked running attack and second-ranked defense, quarterback T.J. Yates simply had to manage the game to succeed.
The Baltimore Ravens also have a better rushing attack than passing offense with Ray Rice carrying the team as the Ravens' leading rusher (1,364 yards) and receiver (704). Despite quarterback Joe Flacco becoming more seasoned, like the Texans, the Ravens are able to rely on a good running game to complement a strong defense.
The exception among the AFC teams in the divisional round is the New England Patriots, who, with the establishment that is Tom Brady at quarterback, are able to rely on their second-ranked passing attack. Brady is more in keeping with the top NFC QBs, one of three quarterbacks to reach 5,000 passing yards (he had 5,235) this season, with 39 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and a 105.6 rating. The Patriots run the ball enough to keep defenses honest, ranking 20th, but they don't have a go-to, 1,000-yard runner.
The NFC is much different – much more reliant on the passing game.
It starts with the New Orleans Saints and Drew Brees, who have the top-ranked passing attack in the league after Brees shattered Dan Marino's passing yardage mark with 5,476 yards. But the Saints are also one of the most successfully balanced teams in the league with the sixth-ranked rushing game.
With Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, it wasn't necessarily the huge yards but the regular-season efficiency that was impressive. Rodgers had an incredible 45-to-6 touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio and a 122.5 rating for the season. The Packers were ranked third in passing offense and only 27th in rushing.
Even the Giants, generally considered a physical team because of their defense and bruising running back Brandon Jacobs, are dead last in the league running ball but have flourished with Eli Manning at quarterback. Manning had 29 touchdown passes with 16 interceptions and also pushed the 5,000-yard mark with 4,933 yards.
Like the AFC, the NFC has its own (although opposite) exception left in the playoffs – the San Francisco 49ers. They are ranked 29th in passing but eight in rushing and first in run defense.
The moral of the playoff story is this: Eating up defenses with the passing game gives teams the best chance to make and survive in the postseason, but it's not impossible to make the playoffs with a bottom-feeding passing attack if it is complemented by a strong running game and stifling run defense.
Still, it's not a coincidence that the top three favorites to win the Super Bowl, according to Las Vegas, are also the top three passing offenses in the league.
As for the Vikings, they'll have to hope that Peterson comes back strong from his knee surgery and that they can improve on their slipping run defense. In the meantime, Frazier is also counting on the passing game to improve.
"I know we have the best running back in the game, and we'll get to the point where we'll be a team that can compete with New Orleans and Green Bay," Frazier said, before stating the painfully obvious. "They've been better than we have this season."
Which is much of the reason they are in the playoffs and the Vikings knew by midseason that they would be sad spectators.