Beating the point spread in the NFL requires staying vigilant in staying aware of the evolving strategies and tactics teams are using to find success. While Pro Football Focus produced another article espousing the virtues of abandoning the run (this latest version made the argument that pass blocking is easier than run blocking — a claim I have heard many NFL offensive line coaches disagree with for what that is worth), I was paying attention to seven teams riding recent good runs that appear to be linked to their renewed commitment to running the football.
(1) New England. The Patriots are on a six-game winning streak heading into Monday Night Football in Buffalo against the Bills. New England has averaged 144 rushing yards per game during this streak with nine rushing touchdowns. The emergence of rookie running back Rhamondre Stevenson to compliment Damien Harris has played a big role The football analytics community tends to dismiss the importance of the Time of Possession battle. The Patriots have averaged being on offense for almost 33 minutes per game during this stretch, but what does Bill Belichick know? The coaches that value Time of Possession argue that keeping their defense off the field keeps those players fresh. New England has allowed more than 13 points only once during their winning streak.
(2) Indianapolis. The Colts went into Week 13 having won five of their last seven games. They have averaged 166 rushing yards per game with 14 touchdown passes in that stretch. They averaged more than 31 minutes per game on offense. Indianapolis traveled to Houston yesterday where they ran the ball 48 times for 238 yards. They were on offense for 41:35 minutes of the game. In shutting out the Texans in their 31-0 victory, they only allowed 141 total yards.
(3) Cincinnati. The Bengals had averaged 178 rushing yards during a two-game winning streak going into their showdown with the Los Angeles Chargers. They rushed for five touchdowns in those two wins against Las Vegas and Pittsburgh. They averaged a time of possession of 36:20 minutes in those games with Joe Mixon running the ball 58 times. Falling behind 24-0 to the Chargers got Cincinnati away from this formula for success. They ran the ball only 25 times for 96 yards in a 41-22 loss to Los Angeles.
(4) Baltimore. The Ravens had been on a two-game winning streak traveling to Pittsburgh last week. They averaged 136 rushing Yards-Per-Game in those games while being on offense for 38 minutes per game in those two contests. They allowed only 23 combined points in those two victories. In their 20-19 loss to the Steelers, they ran the ball 25 times for 107 yards. They did hold Pittsburgh to just 321 yards while being on offense for 36:30 minutes. Who knows what happens if Baltimore chooses to kick the extra point to force overtime after scoring the tying touchdown with just 12 seconds left in the game. Keeping the Steelers off the field was crucial to keep the game close since Pittsburgh was averaging 5.73 Yards-Per-Play.
(5) San Francisco. The 49ers were on a three-game winning streak going into their game with the Seahawks. They averaged 178 rushing yards per game in those three games with five rushing touchdowns. The Niners averaged 41.7 rushing attempts per game during this span with their offense on the field for over 38 minutes per game. But in their 30-23 loss to Seattle yesterday, San Francisco only ran the ball 25 times for 71 yards. The 49ers’ offense was on the field for just 26:48 minutes.
(6) Washington. The Football Team traveled to Las Vegas to play the Raiders on a three-game winning streak. They averaged 145 rushing yards per game with three rushing touchdowns in those games. Their average Time of Possession in those three games was 38:49 minutes. In their 17-15 victory against Las Vegas, they ran the ball 30 times for 112 yards. Their Time of Possession was 33:43 minutes. In their four-game winning streak with this dedication to running the football, they have held those four opponents to 17.5 Points-Per-Game.
(7) Philadelphia. The Eagles went into Week 13 having won three of their last five games. They were averaging 236 rushing Yards-Per-Game with 10 rushing touchdowns in those games. In their 33-18 victory in New York against the Jets yesterday, Philly ran the ball 41 times for 185 yards which helped them stay on the field for 35:36 minutes. The Eagles have now held four of their last six opponents to 18 points or less.
In other news, the NFL analytics sites tend to not fare very well when picking point spread winners. I think there models are fundamentally flawed because they treat Yards-Per-Play like Points-Per-Possession in basketball. The fundamental difference in evaluating those efficiency statistics is the opportunity football teams have in getting a reset of downs from achieving a first down. A lower Yards-Per-Play average is not as significant if the offense is still getting first downs — and that approach has the additional benefit of keeping their defense off the field (and, presumably, fresher).
Best of luck for us — Frank.