By Shawn Maher (@ShawnBenMaher)
Cold, Hard Football Facts' Hog Whisperer

In the NFL divisional round of the playoffs, the run-heavy January grind continues to delight the Hog Report. The battles of the trenches continue to serve as the basis of the only metric that matters at this point in the season: a chance to add another week to the season.

The Patriots and Falcons became the first teams to notch a win in the win-or-go-home games by running the ball less than 30 times. In the endurance match that is the playoffs, many are bucking contemporary tradition to go back to a more traditional method of winning in sub-zero conditions. In New England the Patriots’ hogs have a hint of the 2004 Super-Bowl-winning team.

AFC Championship: Baltimore Ravens at New England Patriots

Nate Solder and Tom Brady celebrate a Patriots touchdownSince 1993, there have been only three years have the Patriots rushed the ball over 500 times. One of those was the Brady-less 2008 season and the other was the Super-Bowl-winning 2004 season. Like Matt Light becoming a franchise left tackle, 2012 has seen Nate Solder establish himself as the lynch-pin of a highly effective unit. In the win over the Texans, the Patriots ran for 13 YPA behind Solder.

In 2004, the Patriots had 524 rushing attempts with a 4.07 average, while this season New England was second in the league with 523 attempts and 4.18 YPA. The big difference is the temp of the offense and the volume of plays run. The rushing offense of the Patriots of yesteryear accounted for 51.53% of the total plays, while the present-day team only rushes on 44.93% of the plays.

The current team also finished with a 11th-ranked 9.03 NPP% on defense and a 2nd-ranked 5.39 NPP% on offense for an NPP% differential of 3.64, 2.5 being the threshold differential for a Super Bowl champion. The 2004 Pats had a differential of 3.32.

The visiting Ravens are playing some of the best football in the league at the moment, however. While the Ravens rushed for a 3.74 YPA against the Patriots in last year’s championship game, they gave up a 10.26 NPP% on offense. The Patriots advanced to the Super Bowl with an 8.11 NPP% and a 3.10 YPA on 31 rush attempts. Both teams have found significantly more success running the ball this year.

After picking up three sacks against the Broncos, 1 by Pernell McPhee and 2 by Terrell Suggs, they must show the same kind of base-package pressure against the Patriots, ranked second-overall in offensive NPP%, that they did against a Broncos team ranked first-overall.

Since Jim Caldwell had been installed as the Baltimore offensive coordinator, the offense has found significantly more success. Last week, Baltimore completely neutralized a Denver team that was first overall in the Defensive Hog Index for 2012  (not even allowing a sack until overtime), continuing their dedication to running the ball behind their big uglies and limiting Joe Flacco’s passing attempts. But when they do pass, it is easier on their heavy-footed linemen who do not have to deal with pass rushers pinning their ears back and Flacco has more success downfield against teams geared to stop the run.

Ravens Terrell Suggs rushes Broncos Peyton ManningIn their two playoff games, Baltimore has only surrendered a 3.39 NPP% while rushing for 4.58 YPA. Those are the numbers of an offensive juggernaut. Of course, the defense’s 8.74 NPP% and 3.9 YPA in the rushing game are a vital part of the equation, as well.

Since the transition week when Jim Caldwell took over as offensive coordinator, the Ravens have run the ball at least thirty times every week, beginning with a 45-carry game against the Giants. The dedication to the run, which averaged less than 4.7 YPA rushing for the first time in three weeks against the Broncos, has helped give the offensive line a boost.

And when the Ravens keep a clean pocket for Flacco, he responds with some of his best passing. Against Denver in the Divisional round of the playoffs, Flacco passed for 9.74 YPA. Against Indianapolis in the Wild Card round, he passed for 12.26 YPA and in the last game that Caldwell had full use of his starters in Week 16, Flacco passed for 8.58 YPA.

Any of those averages would have led the league, and it is not surprised that the leaderboard included o-hogs whose teams found success running the ball. Robert Griffin III led the league in YPA with 8.1, and the Redskins led the league with 2,709 rushing yards while RGIII was . The Seahawks led the league in rushing attempts, and Russell Wilson was in the top ten of YPA with 7.9 while only 25th in pass attempts.

When Flacco has averaged over 10 YPA in the regular season, it led to two of Baltimore’s biggest wins. The Ravens beat Cincinnati 44-13 in Week 1 on 29 pass attempts, and later beat Oakland 55-10 while only attempting 33 passes.

The Ravens have rushed more than they have thrown the ball, and that has benefited Flacco as much as it has Baltimore’s bruising tackle duo of Michael Oher and Bryant McKinnie. Despite all of the hype for the no-huddle for both teams this season, it could be a real grinder in Foxborough on Sunday.

NFC Championship: San Francisco 49ers at Atlanta Falcons

49ers Frank Gore scores against the PackersIn 1940, George Halas won the league championship by adopting the T-formation and adding moving elements. The formation was popular in college, but was perceived as a gimmick that would never work in the pros. Despite this, Halas and collaborator Clark Shaughnessy used it to put up 73 points in the 1940 championship game and generated a playoff-record 382 rushing yards.

Like the T-formation, which aligned three running backs in the backfield with the quarterback under center, the 49ers have found success using the diamond formation, a set lifted from college that uses three running backs while the quarterback is in shotgun. What makes it so effective in San Francisco is a set of o-hogs that can maul their opponents and that allowed Colin Kaepernick rush for a quarterback-record 181 yards against the Packers last week, along with a record-threatening 323 total rushing yards.

But the innovative diamond formation is not just a college offense, although the zone read has become a large part of the 49ers’ game. The package allows the 49ers to move their versatile tight ends to the backfield and help keep defenses from over-committing, making life easier for an offensive line that finished ranked third in rushing yards per attempt.

Still, the San Francisco offensive line has been outstanding enough to put up two noteworthy performances. Against Buffalo, the 49ers rushed for 311 yards and a 8.18 YPA while passing for 310 yards. Their 7.51 YPA against Green Bay was all part of a convincing win, as well, and the offensive line did not disappoint in the passing game. The 6.25 NPP% was well below the season average for a unit that is peaking along with the rest of the team at playoff time.

On defense, the 49ers’ dominance in the trenches is focused mainly on one player: defensive end Justin Smith. The man they call “Cowboy” lassoes in defenders and keeps his linebackers clean to make plays: the epitome of an old-school defensive linemen.

But, with Smith lining up mostly over the left tackle and guard, the Packers ran with success by avoiding Smith and rushed for 6.5 YPA. The Falcons will likely mirror this game plan, especially with speedy back Jacquizz Rodgers finding success behind an Atlanta line hitting its stride. Despite not being targeted in the run game, Smith led the 49ers by making 22.22% of the tackles in the running game. Heavily targeted defensive end Ray McDonald only had 16.67% and nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga did not have any tackles.

The Falcons were 9th-ranked in the OHI on the strength of a 6.53 NPP%, but struggled with a 29th-ranked 3.70 YPA rushing. Against the Packers, however, they found themselves plowing their way to a 6.4 YPA average, looking like the balanced team that that has always been lurking underneath the surface.

Rodgers gained 6.42 YPA on 10 carries, and is the same kind of quick-burst back as DuJuan Harris that can give the 49ers trouble if the Falcons’ offensive line can continue to make hay in run blocking. Even Michael Turner gained 98 yards on a 7.0 average.

But the 49ers’ defensive weakness is matched up against a weakness of the Flacons. While the Packers did not rush at all to the extreme left of the formation, the Falcons beat the Seahawks by running to the left, despite an opportunity to the right to run at pass-rushing specialist Bruce Irvin.

The biggest problem is that right guard Peter Konz just does not have the strength that a strong-side guard needs. He was drafted as a center and just does not play with the leverage or hand-strength that a guard requires. It was apparent in the rushing averages that the Falcons had against the Seahawks:

  • Left edge: 6.43 YPA
  • Left tackle: 16 YPA
  • Left guard: 7 YPA
  • Right guard: 4 YPA
  • Right tackle: 4.5 YPA
  • Right edge: 3 YPA

And while the Falcons held the Seahawks to a not-terribly-bad 4.39 YPA rushing, Atlanta moves on from the team that led the league in rushing attempts to the team that finished seventh with 492. San Francisco did finish third in YPA with 5.07, however, and poses a much higher problem.

Atlanta’s d-hogs are a flexible bunch, which helped lead to Seattle’s demise. The Seahawks saw the Falcons play very often with their three defensive tackle package, designed to combat the run. Mike Nolan, who excels in putting his defensive players in position to be successful, also used an old-school, five-man front against the Seahawks. It would not be surprising to see the 5-2 look make another appearance against the 49ers, a team that would love to power its way to the Super Bowl.

What Atlanta can hang their helmets on is their bendability ranking on defense, which was second only to Seattle’s. Offenses simply are not efficiently scoring points against them, and if the Falcons can throw a wrench into the efficiency of the 49ers, that is the foot in the door that they need for the win.