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Passing Games Provide Sharp Contrast in the NFL Conference Championship Games

The two predominant story lines that people will want in the Super Bowl are the rematch of January 2008, when the Giants ended the Patriots’ perfect season, or the battle of Harbaugh Brotherly Love, if San Francisco and Baltimore win. However, if neither of those particular matchups occurs, we will still get the rubber match in a best of 3 showdown between offense and defense, high powered passing games versus run stuffing, hard hitting defense.

This year saw yet another explosion of offense in the NFL, with teams throwing it more than any year other than 1995, and gaining more passing yards, total yards, and yards per play than any year in NFL history. Oh, and this has been somewhat lost, but the average yards gained per rush has topped out at 4.3 for the first time ever, likely a byproduct of defenses doing their best to lean toward stopping the pass, and a willingness to concede rushing yards more than ever.

In the last five years, we have seen the following teams win or play in a Super Bowl:

  • one ranked dead last in rushing defense win the Super Bowl (the 2006 Colts) because they were best at passing the ball,
  • one that ranked 20th in yards per pass and 26th in yards per rush (the 2009 Saints) because they could pass the ball really well,
  • one that went 9-7, but went on a playoff run because of a great quarterback and wide receivers (2008 Cardinals),
  • one that attempted 43 passes and only 11 rushes (besides kneel downs) in a Super Bowl despite playing with the lead most of the game (2010 Packers).

Against this backdrop, though, we have a different set of teams in these conference finals, as San Francisco and Baltimore have done it with teams that are driven by stopping the run and forcing teams into bad situations where they can generate turnovers. Neither passing offense was consistently dynamic in the regular season, though both had their moments of inspiration in key games.

Still, the New England Patriots and New York Giants both averaged a substantially higher yards per attempt than their opponents. How do these discrepancies rank historically? Well, the Giants have the largest differential in offensive net yards per pass for a road team in a conference final, while the Patriots are in the top 5 since 1978 for a home team. Here are the 10 biggest differences between home and road teams in a conference championship game, in terms of offensive passing per attempt:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And here are the largest deficits for a home team in offensive passing per attempt, with this matchup being the most extreme.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When a team is at a passing disadvantage in the championship game, they likely have the advantage in other areas–defense, special teams, the running game, that tend to close the gap. That’s what we see here, but it does present a fascinating contrast in both games today. The two largest advantages for road teams in passing yards per play resulted in blowouts in favor of the home team, though I’ll point out those were both dome teams playing in cold weather, whereas New York will be at no such disadvantage.

Coming into this season, the four highest ranked teams in terms of passing yards per play were Green Bay, New Orleans, New England and New York. New York upset the Packers in a passing showdown, while the Saints came up short late against San Francisco. Now, we get our real test of passing oriented success versus teams built around defense. It should be fun. And if we don’t get the Harbaughs or the Pats versus Giants redux, we will at least get to do it one last time.

[photo via Getty]

 

 

 

 

 

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