Running Game Key to ATS Success in Super Bowl
by Trevor Whenham - 01/29/2008
When you think of the Patriots and their league-best offense, you usually don't think about the running game. Sure, they are in the top half of the league in ground efficiency, but it 's the passing game that has led them this close to the Promised Land. If New England had a choice, they would pass on every down. Despite that, it's a mistake to underestimate the importance of the running game to the outcome of the Super Bowl. The team that has gained the most yards on the ground has covered more than 70 percent of all Super Bowls played (30-11 ATS). That's more dominant than the role of the passing game, and it sends a clear message that we will be well served by spending some time figuring out which team has the better chance of wining the running battle on Sunday.
Looking at how New England defended the run can lead you into all sorts of troubles if you aren't careful. On the surface they are solid run stoppers, allowing 98.3 yards per game, which is good for 10th in the league. Few statistics are more misleading this year, though. Since the Patriots never lost their opponents were almost always behind late in the game, so they didn't have the luxury of running in the second half. That makes the Patriots look better than they really are. To get a better sense of reality you have to look at yards per carry. This makes the Pats look much worse - their 4.4 yards per carry allowed puts them way down at 26th. New England is not great at stopping the run, but can the Giants take advantage of that?
The Giants were pretty good at running the ball, and very good if you take out the first four games. At the start of the season they probably were suffering from a Tiki Barber hangover, and they struggled to find their stride. After torching the Jets for 188 yards, though, they were much better. They ended up fourth in the league with 134 yards per game, and averaged 146 yards per carry in the last 12 games. They averaged 4.6 yards per carry, and that was good enough for the top three. When the Giants have the ball they have the edge on the ground. How about the other way around?
The Giants are almost as strong stopping the run as they are at running it themselves. Their 97.7-yard per game average was only slightly better than the Patriots, but they allowed a much better average of 3.8 ypc, which is tied for fourth best in the league. They should be able to match up well against a Patriots team that is only 13th best in yards per game, and 14th best in the league in yards per carry. Again, that number isn't as impressive as it looks if you think about it - New England had a lot of big leads late and would have piled up the rushing yards after their opponents had given up. The Giants have an edge on paper there, too.
Reality is different than theory, so let's see how these two teams actually matched up when they played. It wasn't very pretty for either team. The Patriots had a lowly 44 yards on 26 carries, for just 1.7 yards per carry. Laurence Maroney did score two touchdowns, though. The Giants had a much more impressive 4.16 yards per carry, but they carried just 19 times in total, and they didn't score on the ground. The Giants have a slight edge, but that's pretty much a draw. It's also not very relevant - the game was a high scoring battle that was tight to the end, so neither team could afford to rely on the run as much as they may have liked. What happened last time, then, isn't a good indicator of what might happen next time.
The playoffs are a whole new season, and how teams are performing in the postseason are a lot more relevant to the outcome of the Super Bowl than what they did in October. If the Patriots had running problems this year, they seem to have solved them in the payoffs. They have averaged 4.9 yards per carry and 147 yards per game, and they have done it against two run defenses in the top half of the league. They have improved at stopping the ball, too - 92 yards per game and 4.2 yards per carry against the second and seventh best run offenses.
Perhaps the playoffs are the time when good teams improve their running game, because the Giants have improved on run defense as well. They have allowed 14 fewer yards per game. They haven't been as impressive running the ball, though - their average is down by 26 yards per game, and their average is down by more than a yard per carry. The edge that the Giants have on the ground still exists, but it isn't nearly as significant in the playoffs as it was in the regular season.
What does it all mean? It's hard to find a lot of reasons to believe that the Giants can beat the Patriots, but the running game could be one of them. If both teams play like we have come to expect them then the Giants will come out well ahead in run statistics. That bodes well according to Super Bowl history, but there is one thing to keep in mind - the Pats have been less than perfect on both sides of the ball when it comes to the run all season, and it hasn't hurt their record too badly.