Atlanta Falcons: Running Game Isn't Necessary to Super Bowl Run

Justin BlanchardContributor IIDecember 24, 2012

DETROIT, MI - DECEMBER 22: Michael Turner #33 of the Atlanta Falcons runs for a first down as Cliff Avril #92 of the Detroit Lions attempts to make the stop during the fourth quarter of the game at Ford Field on December 22, 2012 in Detroit, Michigan. The Falcons defeated the Lions  31-18.  (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)
Leon Halip/Getty Images

The Atlanta Falcons' sluggish running game has been heavily scrutinized this season.

It's a trend that has continued into December, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Michael Cunningham brought the Falcons' lack of a consistent rushing attack to light in an article, and Bleacher Report's own Knox Bardeen was equally critical of the team's ground-game woes in one of his own.

They're entirely justified in doing so. Atlanta's running game has seen a serious decline this year and is by far the team's biggest weakness on offense, as 30-year-old Michael Turner has seen his yards-per-carry average sink to 3.6 from 4.5 a year ago while the team as a whole has gone from owning the 17th-best rushing offense in 2011 to the fourth-worst in 2012. 

That's a big concern, considering the playoffs are right around the corner. After all, the old adage says good defense and a running game are key to a postseason run.

Recent history suggests there's a new one, however, and it says otherwise.

Despite Adrian Peterson's best attempts to turn back the clock, the rest of the NFL has joined the modern age. Explosive passing offenses continue to take over the league, effectively turning the running game into an afterthought.

The fact that eight different quarterbacks have already thrown for more than 4,000 yards this season after 10 different QBs did so in 2011—a record three of which eclipsed the 5,000-yard mark—is a testament to that.

An even bigger one: Last year's league champion New York Giants fielded the 32nd-ranked rushing offense heading into the playoffs, managing just 89.2 yards a game. Their passing offense? Fifth-best in the league, headed by Eli Manning, who threw for more than 4,900 yards on the year.

It was much of the same for the Giants once the playoffs rolled around, with the running game improving but Manning's arm proving to be the team's key to victory week in and week out en route to a win over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI.

It was a similar case the year before, as Aaron Rodgers led the Green Bay Packers not only into the playoffs with the league's fifth-best passing offense despite having just the 24th-best rushing attack, but all the way to victory in Super Bowl XLV.

In 2009, the Indianapolis Colts' last-ranked rushing offense didn't keep them from reaching Super Bowl XLIV. Nor did the Arizona Cardinals' last-ranked rushing offense keep them from making it to Super Bowl XLIII. Instead, those two teams lived by their passing offenses, with both ranked second-best in that category the year of their respective Super Bowl runs.

It's obvious that all of those teams would have liked to have a potent ground game during those years, just as the Falcons would like this one.

It's also obvious that running the ball is still an effective means of moving the ball. Just ask this year's Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers, Houston Texans or New England Patriots—four teams in the league's top 10 rushing rankings, four teams that have already punched their playoff tickets.

But that's what works for them. What works for the Falcons—against the league's worst as equally as its best—is the passing game, and they've done just fine depending on that alone, with Matt Ryan having the best season of his career throwing to the virtually impossible-to-cover trio of Roddy White, Julio Jones and Tony Gonzalez.

The stats say it all: Quarterbacking the league's fifth-best passing offense, Ryan has thrown 31 touchdowns this season (fifth-most in the league), while the Falcons' 28th-ranked rushing offense has scored just 11 times on the ground (15th-most in the league).

There's no question the Falcons' passing attack has carried the team up to this point. It's what moves the chains (fourth-most first downs through the air in the league) and gets the points on the scoreboard (exhibit A, B, C). 

There's no reason to believe it can't continue to do so throughout the playoffs.