Air apparent: Plenty of passing expected in NFL Playoffs

New England Patriots quarterback passed for 5,235 yards, second in the league, and 39 touchdowns, fourth in the league. Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers threw for the fifth-most yards, 4,643, and second-most TDs, 45. (Associated Press)New England Patriots quarterback passed for 5,235 yards, second in the league, and 39 touchdowns, fourth in the league. Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers threw for the fifth-most yards, 4,643, and second-most TDs, 45. (Associated Press)
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From opening night until New Year’s Day, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees and Tom Brady dared defenses to stop them.

Nobody could.

Yards and points were accumulated at record rates in the NFL this season, and because those three star quarterbacks — along with other slingers such as Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger — are still chasing a championship as the playoffs begin this weekend, the question becomes:

Will the postseason be as pass-heavy and filled with points as the regular season was?

“It’s kind of the way it was this year, all year, and it’s really the way teams are built — to throw the football,” said quarterback Matt Ryan, whose Atlanta Falcons play at Manning’s New York Giants on Sunday. “I guess I can see that moving forward.”

Detroit Lions QB Matthew Stafford passed for 5,038 yards, third in the NFL, and 41 touchdowns, also third in the NFL. (Associated Press)

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Detroit Lions QB Matthew Stafford passed for 5,038 yards, third in the ... more >

It all began in Game 1, when Rodgers and Brees combined for 731 yards and six touchdowns through the air, helping the past two Super Bowl champions, the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints, put up 76 points. A few days later, Brady threw for 517 yards for the New England Patriots.

On and on it went, all the way through Week 17, when even the resting Rodgers‘ backup, Matt Flynn, got in on the act, breaking franchise marks by passing for 480 yards and six TDs in a 45-41 victory over the Detroit Lions, whose own quarterback, Matthew Stafford, also produced “Did I read that right?” numbers: 520 yards, five touchdowns.

Add it up, and NFL teams gained more yards combined per game than ever (693.7, 21.7 higher than the old mark). They also scored more points combined per game (44.4) than any time since 1965, a season before the first Super Bowl. The entire history of the league had produced two 5,000-yard passing seasons; there were three in 2011 (by Brady, Brees and Stafford). For the first time, three teams scored more than 500 points in the same season (Packers, Saints, Patriots). Quarterbacks threw for 300 or more yards in a game 121 times, 17 more than in any prior season.

“I don’t necessarily expect things to change much in the playoffs. We’re definitely trending toward higher numbers,” said Joe Theismann, who quarterbacked the Washington Redskins to the 1982 NFL title.

His team’s success was predicated in part on the running of John Riggins behind an offensive line known as the Hogs, but that old formula of relying on the ground game for success in January might be exactly that: an old formula.

“The way we’ve thought about traditional and conventional football in the past has changed, and it has changed significantly,” Theismann said. “Basically, now you run just to slow down the pass rush a little bit or you run to set up your play-action passing game for big plays.”

Conventional wisdom used to dictate that it’s important to be able to run the ball in cold, blustery playoff weather. But Theismann and Rodgers both pointed to last weekend’s 86-point, passing free-for-all at Lambeau Field, where Flynn and Stafford ignored the 20 mph wind, freezing temperature and snow flurries.

The teams that boast nine of the NFL’s 10 highest-rated passers this season made the playoffs (although No. 6, Houston’s Matt Schaub, is injured). And of the teams with the 13 lowest-rated quarterbacks, only one is still around: Denver, with Tim Tebow, which hosts Pittsburgh on Sunday.

Similarly, seven of the league’s nine leaders in yards receiving made the playoffs.

Anyone not convinced that running games aren’t central to a team’s success should consider this: Only six of the league’s top 18 rushers made it to the postseason. And in last year’s Super Bowl, for example, the Packers ran the ball 13 times and threw it 39.

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