Kernels of conventional gridiron wisdom were crushed again this week, ground into dust by the millstone of truth that is the Cold, Hard Football Facts.
Take, for example, the Giants-Browns battle on Monday Night Football.
The Giants were virtually unstoppable on the ground, ripping off 181 yards on 25 carries, for an utterly dominating 7.2 yard-per-attempt average (the Browns, for their part, averaged a healthy 4.8 YPA on the ground).
Along the way, the Giants extended their lead in the race to become the greatest running team of all time.
The 2008 Giants now average a truly historic 6.08 YPA on the ground. No team in NFL annals, not even Brown's Browns, has come close to running the ball as well as the Giants do this year.
But New York's dominance on the ground Monday night proved irrelevant – as it so often does. Cleveland destroyed the defending champs, 35-14.
It's easy to find the answer. Police investigators, in the search for criminals, tell us to follow the money trail. Gridiron investigators, in their search for the source of victory, need to follow the passing trail.
And the Browns – despite being pounded on the ground – won the air battle handily. Cleveland averaged 10.7 yards each time Derek Anderson stepped back to pass, easily outperforming the Giants, who averaged just 6.6 yards each time Eli Manning dropped back in the pocket.
The Browns were not alone this week:
- Teams like the Browns, that won the passing battle in Week 6, went 11-3.
- Teams like the Giants, that won the rushing battle in Week 6, went just 5-9.
These numbers are not anomalies. They're typical results in week after week and year after year of NFL action.
Despite the protestations of pigskin "pundits" and desk-pounding ex-offensive linemen that teams need to "establish the run," victory in the NFL almost always goes to the team that passes the ball better.
Other examples from Week 6 are just as stunning as the Giants-Browns game.
New England on Sunday did everything the "pundits" say is key to winning in the NFL:
- The Patriots controlled the clock (31:34 to 28:26)
- The Patriots ran the ball better (26 for 106 and 4.1YPA to 28 for 98 and 3.5 YPA)
- The Patriots won the third-down battle (35 percent success to 30 percent)
Yet the Patriots were crushed, 30-10, by a Chargers team that utterly dominated through the air (11.3 YPA to 4.6 YPA).
San Francisco on Sunday made the "pundits" plump with pride, too:
- The 49ers controlled the clock handily (33:19 to 26:41)
- The 49ers battled to a statistical draw on the ground (outrushing the Eagles 131 to 103, while each team averaged 4.9 YPA)
- The 49ers even won the special teams battle, returning a kick for a TD while the Eagles netted just 16 yards per punt.
Yet the 49ers lost by two touchdowns, 40-26, to an Eagles team that was far more effective through the air (7.8 YPA to 5.3 YPA)
Chicago on Sunday delivered a textbook performance in conventional strategy:
- The Bears won the third-down battle (56 percent to 42 percent)
- The Bears ran the ball more effectively, while stifling the Atlanta ground game (3.4 YPA to 2.5 YPA)
- The Bears defense limited Atlanta to just one touchdown.
Yet the Bears lost, 22-20, to a Falcons team with a far superior passing attack (10.0 YPA to 6.4 YPA). The Atlanta air assault included a critical 26-yard Matt Ryan-to-Michael Jenkins completion that set up the game-winning, last-second field goal.
Time and again the Cold, Hard Football Facts, just like the Browns, Chargers, Eagles and Falcons, prove conventional wisdom wrong.
Teams that run the ball well make the talking heads and ex-offensive-linemen happy. Teams that pass the ball well win football games.
Oh, and those Giants who were undefeated while dominating on the ground? They merely prove the pre-eminence of the pass: the Giants passed the ball more effectively than their opponents in each of their first four victories. When they finally lost the passing battle, they lost the game.