EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The key to running the ball effectively in the NFL is patience. The ability to fight off frustration. You run and you get very little. You run again and you lose yards. The temptation sets in to just junk the run game and start chucking the ball.
You watched the Saints-Lions game Saturday night and you're thinking that looks like a pretty sweet way to go. But you have to fight it. You have to stay patient, believing it will work. And the book -- albeit an old book, with frayed corners and yellow-edged pages, says you'll be rewarded.
The New York Giants are putting on a clinic in this sort of patience. For most of this season, they were the worst running team in the entire NFL. They finished the season ranked 32nd among 32 teams in rush yards per game at a miserable 89.2 yards per game. On the surface, they seemed to have morphed into a passing offense, with Eli Manning sailing past 4,000 yards again and Victor Cruz joining Hakeem Nicks to form a dangerous downfield wideout combo. But through it all, the Giants insisted they wanted to run the ball, insisted they still could. And at exactly the right time of the year, they are proving their stubborn, patient selves right.
"At this time of year, especially in the playoffs, that's got to be a strength," Giants left tackle David Diehl said in the wake of the Giants' 24-2 playoff victory over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday. "Getting that run game going, keeping that opposing offense off the field and helping keep our great defensive line fresh. That's what we want to do, and today we did it."
Did they ever. The Giants rolled up 172 rushing yards against a Falcons defense that ranked sixth against the run in the regular season. That's the Giants' season high in rushing yards by 50 -- surpassing the 122 they got in a Week 6 victory over Buffalo and doing so on two fewer carries. They went to the run game because an aggressive Falcons pass rush was clobbering Manning early. But more importantly, they stuck with the run game even while it wasn't working. They didn't start breaking through until the final minutes of the first half, when Brandon Jacobs bounced out to the right for a 34-yard second-down scamper that set up the game's first touchdown. But once the Giants got going, they were on their way to their best rushing day of the season.
"I think numbers-wise, it will be," Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. "But it was a difficult time getting started. That first half was tough."
He could be talking about the game or the season. The Giants averaged 82.3 yards per game and 3.18 yards per carry in their first 11 games of this season. But over the last six games, starting with the Dec. 4 loss to next week's playoff opponent, the Green Bay Packers, they have averaged 115.7 yards per game and 4.42 yards per carry.
"If I could tell you that, we would have done it 10 weeks ago," right tackle Kareem McKenzie said. "But obviously, it gets you in a better rhythm and also opens up a little bit what the offensive coordinator can do in terms of calling plays."
All true, but what's more important for the Giants is that their improved run game allows them to play the kind of physically dominating style of football that traditionally wins this time of year. With their defensive line fully healthy for the first time all season, they've been the dominant physical team on defense in each of their last three games. And now that the offensive line is opening holes in the run game so much more effectively than it was earlier in the season, they're able to do that more on the other side of the ball as well.
"Confidence, man," said running back Ahmad Bradshaw, who had 63 yards on his 14 carries while Jacobs carried 14 times for 92 yards. "We feel good about our running game, and we stick to it."
They felt confident all year, and stuck to it all year, even when it wasn't working. But things turned around when injuries forced the Giants to make changes on the offensive line. Starting left tackle Will Beatty had surgery on his eye in advance of the Week 12 game in New Orleans, forcing Diehl from left guard back to his old position of left tackle. They rushed for just 73 yards on 22 carries that night while the Saints were blowing them out, but they seemed to do better opening holes for Jacobs.
Over the next few games, the Giants got Bradshaw back from his foot injury but were forced to play without center David Baas. But Kevin Boothe and Mitch Petrus filled in well, and Boothe has remained in the lineup as Diehl's replacement at left guard. Whether Beatty was overmatched, whether Diehl has been energized by moving back to tackle (as he admitted to me last week he was), or whether Boothe is just a really good run-blocker, the combinations they've been using since the Beatty injury have been more effective than those that were in force for the majority of the season.
If we can get that run game going like we did in that second half, that opens up a lot of windows," Manning said. "For the passing game, it makes the safeties come down and get in the mix and we feel, with our receivers, we will be able to hit some big plays."
The big play Sunday was the 72-yard touchdown throw to Nicks, and had the Giants not been running the ball as well as they were, it may not have happened. When it was over, Coughlin spoke of "balance" in the offense and the importance of sticking with the run even when it's not working.
It's possible there's never been a better macro example of that than this year's Giants, whose running game could not have picked a better time to show up.