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The Keys to the NFL Divisional Round

It’s a passing league. So why are the remaining teams so good at rushing?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

You may have heard it a few times by now, but we’re in the passing era. Each of the past 10 NFL seasons ranks in the all-time top 10 for passing yards per game, according to league data going back to 1932. The past 10 seasons also all rank in the bottom 12 in rushing attempts per game. Football teams are passing more and running less, but while the league is zigging, the playoff field is full of clubs that are zagging. In the 2019 regular season, just six teams ran on more than 45 percent of their plays. Five of those six are still in the playoffs.

These teams run in the face of the passing era, and they are proud of it. The Seattle Seahawks have the most rushing attempts and rushing yards since 2010, when Pete Carroll became their head coach. Tennessee running back Derrick Henry led all players in rushing yards and tied for the lead in rushing touchdowns with Green Bay’s Aaron Jones, who is also in the playoffs. The San Francisco 49ers led the league in rushing touchdowns and ran on 49 percent of their plays, tied for second in the league. San Francisco’s opponent on Saturday, the Minnesota Vikings, was the team they were tied with. The team ahead of them was the Ravens, whose 3,296 rushing yards and 5.5 yards per carry this season were the highest for both statistics in the Super Bowl era. Revolutions spark counterrevolutions, but the NFL’s passing obsession has inspired a literal counter movement.

In July, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said Baltimore’s offense would be a revolution on par with Bill Walsh’s 49ers West Coast offense. After the Ravens beat the Steelers in Week 17 and finished their season with a league-best 14-2 record, Harbaugh repeated it to his team in the locker room.

“The revolution has begun,” Harbaugh said. “The revolution is here.”

The next stage of the revolution kicks off Saturday.

Saturday, January 11

Minnesota Vikings (10-6) @ San Francisco 49ers (13-3)

Kickoff time: Saturday, 4:35 p.m. ET
Channel: NBC
Announcers: Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth, Michele Tafoya (sideline reporter)
Opening line: San Francisco -7
Over/under: 46
Weather forecast: Clear, 55 degrees

Key Vikings injuries and absences: Receiver Stefon Diggs (illness), receiver Adam Thielen (ankle), center Brett Jones (MCL, injured reserve), defensive tackle Linval Joseph (knee), outside linebacker Ben Gedeon (concussion, injured reserve), cornerback Mackensie Alexander (knee), cornerback Mike Hughes (neck, injured reserve)

Key 49ers injuries and absences: Center Weston Richburg (kneecap, injured reserve), guard Mike Person (neck), defensive end Dee Ford (hamstring), linebacker Kwon Alexander (pectoral, medically cleared to return from injured reserve), defensive tackle Jullian Taylor (ACL, injured reserve), defensive tackle D.J. Jones (ankle, injured reserve), defensive end Damontre Moore (forearm, injured reserve), defensive end Ronald Blair (ACL, injured reserve)

Key to the game: Resolving some family disputes

There are stories of twins separated at birth who reunite as adults and discover they own the same model car, vacation in the same places, and that their spouses and children have the same names. If there is a football version of this, it is Kirk Cousins and Jimmy Garoppolo. On the surface, this may sound strange. Cousins is a churchgoing husband and father who has to wear his own jersey to the Minneapolis Boys & Girls Club so kids recognize him. Jimmy Garoppolo stars in denim sponcon for GQ and takes the porn star from Bra Busters 4 on dates in Beverly Hills.

As quarterbacks, however, Garoppolo and Cousins are eerily similar. In 2019, they were ranked next to each other in passing yards per game, touchdown passes per pass attempt, and total quarterback rating. They had the same completion percentage (69.1 percent) and used play-action passing at almost identical rates (31.4 percent for Cousins, 31.9 percent for Garoppolo). In the final 13 weeks of the season, their yards per pass attempt were identical (8.3), as were their yards per attempt on play-action passes (10.4) and on non-play-action passes (7.3). This twinning is not a coincidence. Cousins and Garoppolo were not separated at birth, but their offenses are closely related.

Mike Shanahan has influenced the core principles for both of these offenses: a running game that uses the width of the field to space defenders horizontally, and then a play-action passing game that attacks those spaces vertically. Minnesota’s offensive adviser is Gary Kubiak, who is the legal guardian of modern zone running. Kubiak has built the Vikings offense around his signature running style and play-action passing that he honed for 11 years as Mike Shanahan’s offensive coordinator in Denver. Mike’s son, Kyle Shanahan, is the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. (Informally, Mike works for them too. He tutored Jimmy Garoppolo while Garoppolo was out with an ACL injury last year.) Kyle’s first offensive coordinator job came when Kubiak hired him in Houston. When Kyle left to become Washington’s offensive coordinator, he ended up coaching Kirk Cousins. This entire game is like one big family reunion.

However, Kyle Shanahan has modernized his father’s and Kubiak’s system. Rather than try to beat defenders in one-on-one matchups, the 49ers prioritize deception. Shanahan draws nearly every play to make defenders doubt who has the ball, if only for one second. The 49ers move players around before the snap more than any other team in the league and are the best at making every play in their book look similar for the first few seconds of the play. This is a fancy way to dress up the same plays, but it is effective. George Kittle doesn’t get this wide open by accident.

San Francisco’s and Minnesota’s defenses are quite similar, too, but that is more coincidental. Both are built around elite defensive line play. Each team had 48 sacks this year, tied for the fifth most in the league. The Vikings defensive line has Danielle Hunter, whose 54.5 career sacks are the third most ever for a 25-year-old, and defensive end Everson Griffen, one of the league’s most underrated players. San Francisco’s defense has five former first-round picks, including defensive end Dee Ford, who returned to practice this week, and Nick Bosa, the favorite for Defensive Rookie of the Year. Ford’s return meant the 49ers’ entire 53-man roster practiced this week for the first time all season, and linebacker Kwon Alexander could play this week after going on injured reserve midseason with a pectoral injury.

Minnesota’s offensive line has struggled against physically talented defensive lines, and San Francisco’s might be the league’s best. But the flip side is that San Francisco may have the same struggle on the other side of the ball. The game may come down to which defensive line is more disruptive to its opponent’s game plan, and each understands the other’s game plan intrinsically. If styles make fights, family reunions are the best kind. Especially when someone brings a porn star.

Tennessee Titans (9-7) @ Baltimore Ravens (14-2)

Kickoff time: Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET
Channel: CBS
Announcers: Ian Eagle, Dan Fouts, Evan Washburn (sideline reporter)
Opening line: Baltimore -10
Over/under: 48.5
Weather forecast: Overcast, 58 degrees, windy

Key Titans injuries and absences: Running back Dion Lewis (shoulder), receiver Adam Humphries (ankle), guard Nate Davis (illness), tight end Delanie Walker (ankle, injured reserve), pass rusher Cameron Wake (knee, injured reserve), linebacker Jayon Brown (shoulder), linebacker Kamalei Correa (illness), cornerback Malcolm Butler (wrist, injured reserve), cornerback Adoree’ Jackson (foot), kicker Ryan Succop (knee, injured reserve)

Key Ravens injuries and absences: Running back Mark Ingram (ankle), tight end Mark Andrews (ankle), center Matt Skura (knee, injured reserve), linebacker Pernell McPhee (triceps, injured reserve), cornerback Tavon Young (neck, injured reserve), safety Tony Jefferson (ACL, injured reserve)

Key to the game: Baltimore’s rushing and blitzing

In 2019, the rushing yardage gap between the first-ranked Ravens (206 per game) and the second-ranked 49ers (144 per game in 2019) was bigger than the gap between the 49ers and the Atlanta Falcons, who are ranked no. 30 (85 yards per game). Baltimore had more rushing yards than a quarter of the league had passing yards. The Ravens’ rushing totals were historic, but their efficiency was even more impressive. Baltimore averaged 5.5 yards per carry, the highest number in the Super Bowl era.

How did the Ravens build the best rushing offense in pro football history during an era obsessed with passing? The simplest (and correct) answer is they went all in on Lamar Jackson. Rather than rely on the Bill Walsh–Joe Montana West Coast passing schemes that have dominated football for 40 years, the Ravens grabbed a smattering of old-school football concepts that have been around for decades (some have been around for a century) and mixed them into a modern blend of pistol formations, run-pass options, and designed quarterback runs. By embracing Jackson’s rushing, Baltimore changed the fundamental math of pro football. Quarterbacks don’t block, so run plays have always had 11 defenders versus 10 players on offense. Giving the quarterback the ball makes it 11 vs. 11. If 10 blockers do their job, Jackson has to make only one person miss for a big play. Jackson is good at making people miss.

It turns out that when defenses are fundamentally rethinking run defense, it makes it a lot easier to pass against them. Jackson led the league in passing touchdowns (36) even though Baltimore threw the fewest passes in the league (27.5 per game). He also tied for the fifth-highest rushing yards per attempt of the Super Bowl era (6.9). Jackson was the league’s most efficient passer and the league’s most efficient runner in the same season. When John Harbaugh says Baltimore’s offense is a revolution, he might be right.

How the hell do you stop this? The Titans have the third-best run defense according to Pro Football Focus grading (the eye test) and are top 10 by Football Outsiders (the numbers test), but the answer might be less about slowing them down and more about trying to keep up. With Derrick Henry, it’s tempting to think the Titans can outrush the Ravens to win the game. Baltimore’s 5.5 yards per carry may have been the highest mark in the Super Bowl era for an entire season, but since Ryan Tannehill took over as the Titans’ starter in Week 7, the Titans have led the league with 5.6. Henry had 182 yards on 34 carries last week against the Patriots, but the Titans offense managed only 14 points. That will cut it against the Patriots, but not Baltimore. The Ravens had 14 or more points by halftime in 12 of their 16 games.

Tannehill’s passing, not Henry’s rushing, will be the key to keeping up with the Ravens. He had 72 passing yards in the wild-card round, a career low for a game he finished. The Titans may need him to multiply that by four or five to compete in this game. For Tannehill to do that, the Titans need to keep him upright. The Ravens blitzed 55 percent of plays this season, making them the most aggressive defense by far (no other team blitzed more than 44 percent of the time). When Tannehill is pressured, he takes a lot of sacks. He was sacked on almost a third of plays when he was pressured this season, according to PFF, the third most in football, behind Washington rookie Dwayne Haskins and Marcus Mariota, the man Tannehill replaced. Tannehill isn’t pressured all that often in Tennessee’s offense, but if the Ravens can get to him, they’ll likely be able to bring him down, and with him they would bring down the Titans.

Sunday, January 12

Houston Texans (10-6) @ Kansas City Chiefs (12-4)

Kickoff time: Sunday, 3:05 p.m. ET
Channel: CBS
Announcers: Jim Nantz, Tony Romo, Tracy Wolfson (sideline reporter), Jay Feely (sideline reporter)
Opening line: Kansas City -9
Over/under: 49
Weather forecast: Partly cloudy, 32 degrees

Key Texans injuries and absences: Receiver Will Fuller (groin), receiver Kenny Stills (knee), tight end Jordan Akins (hamstring), right tackle Tytus Howard (knee, injured reserve), right tackle Chris Clark (concussion), defensive end J.J. Watt (pectoral), linebacker Jacob Martin (illness), cornerback Johnathan Joseph (hamstring), defensive back A.J. Moore (hip), safety Jahleel Addae (knee), safety Tashaun Gipson (lower back, injured reserve)

Key Chiefs injuries and absences: Tight end Travis Kelce (knee), guard Martinas Rankin (knee, injured reserve), defensive end Alex Okafor (pectoral, injured reserve), defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah (pectoral, injured reserve), outside linebacker Breeland Speaks (MCL, injured reserve), cornerback Morris Claiborne (shoulder), safety Juan Thornhill (ACL, injured reserve)

Key to the game: Kansas City’s defense

When the Texans beat the Chiefs 31-24 in Week 6, they won with the ideal game plan to stop Kansas City: keep the ball out of Patrick Mahomes’s hands. Houston ran the ball 41 times for 192 yards, and Carlos Hyde rushed for more than 100 yards for the first time in two years. Houston had the ball for almost 40 minutes, the worst time-of-possession disparity at home in Chiefs franchise history. Kansas City had three drives in the second half. In the fourth quarter, the Chiefs had the ball for 78 seconds.

This game is not going to follow that script. Houston was a lot healthier in Week 6. In October, the Texans had Houston receiver Will Fuller (who dropped three touchdown passes in the game) and solid right tackle Tytus Howard, but both are dealing with injuries, and Howard will likely miss the game on Sunday. Houston pass rusher J.J. Watt was at full strength and played 96 percent of Houston’s defensive snaps in Week 6. Watt returned from a pectoral injury for the playoffs, but he played just 61 percent of snaps against Buffalo last week. All three injuries change Houston’s game plan dramatically.

Not only was Houston healthier, but Kansas City was a lot more banged up in Week 6. The Chiefs did not have left tackle Eric Fisher, left guard Andrew Wylie, defensive tackle Chris Jones (possibly their best overall defender), or linebacker Anthony Hitchens in Week 6. All four will play on Sunday. Patrick Mahomes is also healthier, despite dislocating his kneecap and hurting his throwing hand since that earlier matchup. In Week 6, Mahomes reaggravated his sprained ankle and was inaccurate for the rest of the game. With the bye, Mahomes will likely be the healthiest he has been since injuring his ankle in Week 1, and he will be at home against a Houston pass defense that is not particularly good. The Texans are the seventh-least-efficient defense overall and against the pass, according to Football Outsiders. In the regular season, Houston allowed the fourth most passing yards, tied for the fourth most passing touchdowns, and the eighth most passing plays of 20-plus yards. On offense, Kansas City ranked in the top seven in all of those categories. Considering the stretch when Mahomes was out or hobbled, plus the injured players the Chiefs have back, they are definitely better than no. 7. The Texans may not be able to stop Mahomes when he has the ball, and unlike Josh Allen, he is probably not going to hand it to them.

Houston’s best bet is to run the ball, but Kansas City’s defense is playing way better under defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo since Thanksgiving, especially against the run. In the first 11 weeks of the season, the Chiefs allowed the second-most rushing yards per attempt (5.1), the third-most rushing yards per game (143), and the second-most total first downs (23 per game). In the five games after their bye in Week 12, the Chiefs rank no. 17 in yards per carry allowed (4.4), have allowed the fifth-fewest rushing yards (95.4), and the ninth-fewest first downs (94). Their passing defense has gotten better in this span, too. In the first 11 weeks of the season, the Chiefs allowed the 19th-most passing yards per game. In their final five games, they allowed the fifth fewest. The Chiefs defense is in a far better place to stop Houston’s drives and get the ball back in Mahomes’s hands this time around, and that might be all it takes for the Chiefs to win.

Seattle Seahawks (11-5) @ Green Bay Packers (13-3)

Kickoff time: Sunday, 6:40 p.m. ET
Channel: Fox
Announcers: Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Erin Andrews (sideline reporter), Chris Myers (sideline reporter)
Opening line: Green Bay -3.5
Over/under: 46
Weather forecast: Partly cloudy, 19 degrees

Key Seahawks injuries and absences: Running back Chris Carson (hip, injured reserve), running back Rashaad Penny (ACL, injured reserve), running back C.J. Prosise (arm, injured reserve), tight end Will Dissly (Achilles, injured reserve), tight end Ed Dickson (knee, injured reserve), left tackle Duane Brown (knee), backup left tackle George Fant (groin), center Justin Britt (ACL, injured reserve), center Joey Hunt (lower leg), guard Mike Iupati (neck), interior offensive lineman Ethan Pocic (core, injured reserve), defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (core), defensive tackle Quinton Jefferson (ankle), linebacker Mychal Kendricks (knee, injured reserve), safety Tedric Thompson (labrum, injured reserve)

Key Packers injuries and absences: Fullback Danny Vitale (knee), right guard Billy Turner (ankle), nose tackle Kenny Clark (back), outside linebacker Preston Smith (ankle)

Key to the game: Aaron Rodgers stepping into his throws

Rodgers is one of the most accurate quarterbacks to ever play football and, at his peak, he had a serious claim as the most accurate passer of all time. The most gifted athletes can get away with shortcuts, and Rodgers’s shortcut has always been throwing without setting his feet. For a long time, his footwork did not stop him from being the most accurate quarterback in the world. His ability to throw from any position was a gift. Now that Rodgers is 36, it may be a curse. Anyone who watched either of Green Bay’s final two games couldn’t miss how often Rodgers was off target. In Week 16, the Packers played the Minnesota Vikings with the chance to clinch the NFC North title on Monday Night Football. Green Bay’s third drive ended when Rodgers threw slightly behind running back Aaron Jones on third-and-3, and Jones was unable to make the catch.

Jones got his hands on this ball, but if Rodgers had put the ball in front of him that would have been a catch. This has become a theme for the Packers. Later in the same game, Rodgers had receiver Davante Adams open for a touchdown, but he put the ball on Adams’s left shoulder instead of the right one.

Adams got his hands on this pass, so he’d be the first one to say he needed to catch it. But this would have been a touchdown if Rodgers had put the ball on Adams’s other shoulder. Why was the pass off? Notice how when Rodgers releases the ball he is drifting backward even though no defenders are near him. If Rodgers had stepped into the throw, he would have put the ball where he wanted. Instead of a touchdown to give the Packers a 13-10 lead at halftime, Green Bay settled for a field goal to make the Vikings lead 10-9.

These issues were even more noticeable against the Lions in Week 17. Even though the Packers played to earn a first-round bye against Detroit’s dumpster pass defense, Rodgers had just one first-quarter completion. On this third-and-21 play, Rodgers stands flat-footed in the pocket and throws behind a wide-open Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who drops the ball. Once again, the ball is catchable, but on the wrong shoulder.

Not all of Rodgers’s misses have been catchable. Here is Rodgers missing an easy pass to running back Aaron Jones in the first quarter of the Lions game. Once again, Rodgers is drifting back on this miss instead of stepping forward.

Rodgers missed Jones two more times before halftime. With the Packers at their own 10-yard line, Aaron Jones (no. 33) took a fake handoff and then beat a linebacker on a wheel route to get wide open along the sideline. Rodgers overthrew him.

This may be the most egregious example of all. Standing on the goal line, Rodgers throws flat-footed, but the ball lands harmlessly at the 38-yard line. If Rodgers had stepped into his throw—and he had 5 yards of space in front of him to do so—he probably would’ve completed the pass for 40-plus yards.

Despite the miss, the Packers drove to the Lions’ 14-yard line down 14-0 with 30 seconds left in the second quarter. On third-and-4, Rodgers felt pressure, rolled right, and saw a wide-open Jones streaking for the end zone. He overthrew him again.

Rodgers threw a bullet, but lofting the ball would have led to an easy touchdown. For the second week in a row, Rodgers missed an open receiver in the end zone and forced the Packers to settle for a field goal. Missing all of these throws to Jones is concerning, considering Jones is second on the team in targets and catches. So many off-target throws may seem like an aberration for Rodgers, but it is part of the growing evidence that he has descended from his apex about five years ago.

To be clear, Rodgers is still a legend. He is capable of making any pass on any play (and often does). It’s just easier to do that when he steps into his throws. Seattle had seven sacks against the Eagles last week, the most they’ve had all season, so he may not be able to do so even when he wants to on Sunday.

An earlier version of this piece misstated the dates of this weekend’s games.