Generally speaking, the "run to win" stuff you hear from nine of ten talking heads is just so much hooey. When you're told that "Team X is 99-1 when they run the ball 25 times or more, so that's what they should do all the time," when you're not being told is how many of those carries come in garbage time, when a team that passed their way to a win is pounding it on the ground to kill the clock. More and more, the NFL is a passing league -- a shotgun, pseudo-spread offense league -- with the "running" game coming in different ways. Those 120 short slants per season from Tom Brady(notes) to Wes Welker(notes) might have been iso blast runs back in 2004, when Corey Dillon(notes) ran for 1,635 yards.
That said, there are times when toughness up the middle must be established, and that's a concept the Philadelphia Eagles have struggled with over the last few years. Head coach Andy Reid has long been criticized for his pass-happy ways, and this trend continued in 2009 -- no team had fewer running back carries. In the first quarter of their 24-0 loss to the Dallas Cowboys last week, the Eagles ran the ball a total of six times in the first quarter. Abandoning the run when the game was still possible was a huge mistake. It allowed the Cowboys to tee off on Donovan McNabb(notes) with impunity, and McNabb left possible scoring plays dead on the field with various overthrows to speed receivers DeSean Jackson(notes) and Jeremy Maclin(notes). Jackson and Maclin were targeted a total of 15 times and caught just six combined passes against Dallas, and the Eagles were left with several third-and-long situations and no answer for them. In the end, Philly ran 10 times for 37 yards, and two of those runs were from McNabb, just tying to get away from the pressure. While Brian Westbrook's(notes) wonderful career is winding down, the Eagles have a Pro Bowl move fullback in Leonard Weaver(notes) and a talented rookie back in LeSean McCoy(notes).
The Cowboys have no such problems with their run game -- with Marion Barber(notes), Felix Jones(notes), and Tashard Choice(notes), they have the best group of backs in the NFL. Match that with fullback Deon Anderson(notes) and that enormous offensive line, and it's tough for any defense to stop the Dallas ground game. The Eagles blitz more than most teams, but that run game had them playing a bit more on their heels. Because they were running out the clock, Dallas took 32 rushing attempts against Philly last week. Because their run game is effective in a way that transfers to any situation, 179 yards came out of those plays.
These two defenses are pretty evenly matched -- excellent front lines, decent linebacker groups, and underrated secondaries. I think the offensive game plans will decide this game. If the Cowboys play keep-away and create scoring situations on the ground (they held the ball for over 40 minutes against the Eagles last week), they will not only put Tony Romo(notes) in optimal situations to convert those opportunities, they will also keep the Eagles in full panic mode and throwing their offense out of balance once again. If that's the way this goes down, the Cowboys will easily get their first playoff win since 1996. The burden is on the Eagles to prove current momentum wrong.