The Raiders have won three of their past four games, and they are doing it the old-fashioned way. They lead the NFL with 1,348 rushing yards, and they churned out 328 and 239 yards on the ground in back-to-back blowout victories.
The Raiders aren’t alone in their smashmouth tactics. The top four rushing teams in the NFL (in yards per game) are all .500 or better. The Chiefs are in first place with a ground attack that racks up over 190 yards per game. The Jets are 5-2 thanks to their running-and-defense philosophy. The hard-running Giants (145.5 yards per game) are in the driver’s seat in the NFC East.
That makes sense, right? To win in the NFL, you have to be successful running the football, and great teams know how to run. All of the color commentators say it, so it must be true.
Not so fast. Even casual fans can see a logical fallacy at work. Yes, good teams usually run well. They do a lot of things well; otherwise, they wouldn’t be good teams. But rushing totals are often inflated by clock-killing drives late in games, when the winning team hands off up the middle seven times just to get everybody home in time for dinner. Our Big Four rushing teams might not be smashmouth teams at all: they may just be teams that spend a lot of fourth quarters nursing a lead.
To get a deeper look at the league’s top rushing teams, I used the Football Outsiders database to funnel out “Ice the Win” yards: the yardage gained by each team in the fourth quarter when leading by a touchdown or more. Then I sorted their rushing stats every-which-way — first down, third down, red zone, and so on — and watched a lot of game tape. My objectives? Find out how committed to the run each team is, how successful they really are, and whether their running success can catapult them into the playoffs.
Kansas City Chiefs
190.4 yards per game, 5.2 yards per carry, 6 TD
Fluff factor: Low. The Chiefs have generated just 101 "Ice the Win" yards.
Fast fact: The Chiefs average an extraordinary 6.8 yards per rush on first down. First-down runs of 56 and 70 yards inflate that figure, but even without the big gains, the Chiefs are an excellent first-down rushing team. Against the Bills alone, they ran for 18, 11, 13, 18, 12, 10, and 13 yards on first down. With production like that, the Chiefs can hammer second-rate defenses without taking to the air.
Getting it done: The Chiefs use two- and three-tight end formations to stretch the line of scrimmage, then send Jamaal Charles (quick, shifty) and Thomas Jones (patient, powerful) to exploit the cutback lanes that result when defenders have eight or more gaps to worry about. The Chiefs have been able to grind out wins against some good defenses: the 49ers control the line of scrimmage well, but Jones and Charles hammered out 192 yards against them.
Bottom line: The Chiefs have the easiest schedule this side of the Sun Belt Conference and face defense-challenged opponents like the Broncos and Cardinals in upcoming weeks. They can rush right into the postseason with only the slightest assist from their passing game.
168.5 yards per game, 4.9 yards per carry, 9 TD
Fluff factor: High. 144 "Ice the Win" yards may not seem like a high total, but see below.
Fast fact: Raiders rushing totals include 117 yards of quarterback scrambles and 121 yards of reverses and end-arounds by wide receivers. The Raiders have also played eight games, while most of the league has only played seven because of bye weeks; that’s why the Raiders lead the league in rushing while the Chiefs top them in yards per game. Add it all up, and the fluff factor in their rushing total is pretty high.
Getting it done: The Raiders are creative about hiding the deficiencies in their passing game. Receivers Lou Murphy, Jacoby Ford, and Darrius Heyward-Bey have all produced big plays on end-arounds, and fullback Marcel Reece (91 yards) gets into the act at times. The end-arounds and fullback bellies keep defenses from loading up on Darren McFadden (fast and strong with limited moves) and Michael Bush (slow and powerful), so the Raiders don’t have to worry about a stacked box, even when their passing game isn’t clicking. When facing an opponent like the Broncos, it’s best to just keep handing off and wait for surrender anyway.
Bottom line: Both McFadden and Bush are injury prone, and the Raiders are still the Raiders — hot streak or not. They may be running well, but there’s a lot of air in their statistics. The Raiders will hang around the wild-card race all season, but if you want to back an AFC West surprise team, back the Chiefs.
New York Jets
153.4 yards per game, 4.8 yards per carry, 6 TD
Fluff factor: Very low. Only 48 "Ice the Win" yards. The Jets are a defense-first team with a tough schedule, so they rarely have the luxury of sitting on the clock in the fourth quarter.
Fast fact: Jets runners have only been stuffed for a loss 12 times; one of those stuffs was a doomed reverse to receiver Jerricho Cotchery. The Jets’ “stuff percentage” is the lowest in the league.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
Bottom line: With Tomlinson, Greene, a great defense and an emerging passing attack, the Jets don’t need gimmicks. Their rushing statistics may dip as the offense opens up for Mark Sanchez. And they’ll be the better for it.
New York Giants
145.5 yards per game, 4.8 yards per carry, 8 TD
Fluff factor: High. 185 "Ice the Win" yards.
Fast fact: Giants running backs already have 14 carries of 20 or more yards — 10 for Ahmad Bradshaw, four for Brandon Jacobs.
Getting it done: The Giants are a great example of how those "Ice the Win" yards color our perceptions. The Giants pass (239 attempts) more than they run (194 attempts, once you remove Eli Manning and punter Matt Dodge), but they have high rushing totals because Bradshaw racked up 35 extra yards when the Giants had an 18-point lead over the Cowboys, and so on. That said, the Giants are a very good rushing team: Bradshaw (quick, versatile) has done most of the work, but the team stuck by Jacobs (powerful, troubled) through the helmet toss incident and has found a role for him as a change-up runner.
Bottom line: The Giants are going to run because they are winning. Once in a while, they will also win because they are running. That’s the secret of the relationship between rushing totals and wins: it’s not cause, it’s not just effect, it’s synergy.
PFT: Tom Brady, who turns 36 in August, says he has "never felt better throwing the football" and his confidence is peaking.
2013 SNF Schedule
Check out the 2013 Sunday Night Football schedule.
Latest from ProFootballTalk
Video: Football from NBC Sports
Next step towards total dominance for NFL
ProFootballTalk: The NFL and the NFLPA are reportedly close to finalizing a new offseason schedule that would move the scouting combine, draft and OTAs up a month. Mike Florio thinks this will help further the NFL’s dominance over the other sports in the American landscape.
Check out some of the NFL cheerleaders from across the league.