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Path to playoff success is on ground

One of the most interesting aspects of the 2014 playoff run is how teams are reemphasizing the run.

Last year, the Seattle Seahawks used the bruising power of Marshawn Lynch, the legs and arm of Russell Wilson and a great defense to win a Super Bowl. While the NFL remains a quarterback-driven league that emphasizes the pass more than the run, top teams are trying to bring more balance into their offense.

Nowhere is this trend more apparent than in the AFC. The top four current seeds -- New England, Denver, Indianapolis and Cincinnati -- have reorganized or are in the process of reorganizing their running games. The Cincinnati Bengals were the first. During the offseason, offensive coordinator Hue Jackson addressed an offense that was too pass happy for a team that lost in the first round of the playoffs three straight years.

The Bengals now have a more balanced attack, running 46 percent of the time.

Three weeks ago, the New England Patriots signed 250-pound LeGarrette Blount after the Pittsburgh Steelers cut him. Over the past two games, he has been New England's main running back. Denver Broncos coach John Fox put his foot down and ordered more physical running plays despite injuries to Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman. C.J. Anderson, an undrafted second-year back, came out of nowhere to rush for 167 and 168 yards in Weeks 12 and 13.

Of the four teams, the Indianapolis Colts are still looking for the right answers. Trent Richardson is stuck at his career average of 3.3 yards per carry. Dan Herron, a discarded sixth-round choice of the Bengals a year ago, has gotten more of a look the past three weeks.

The rushing numbers over the past four weeks tell the story. The Seahawks are 3-1 and have an NFL-best 673 rushing yards in that span. The Broncos are 3-1, with 576 rushing yards, the league's third-best total. The Bengals (523 yards, ninth best) and Patriots (507, 11th) are also 3-1.

Playoff teams have to prepare for the cold, and the best way to handle the conditions is to upgrade their ability to run the football. Snow, wind or rain negatively affect passing offenses, and domed stadium playoff games aren't going to be plentiful. The Colts are sure to have a home playoff game in the dome. The Arizona Cardinals may have a 10-3 record, but there is no guarantee they will win the division with Seattle getting hot.

The New Orleans Saints or Atlanta Falcons may get a home dome playoff game, but nothing is certain in the horrible NFC South.

Pittsburgh showed the value of the ground game by rushing for 193 yards in its convincing 42-21 victory over Cincinnati. Winning this late in the season doesn't come down to having the best running attack, but it does come down to having enough of a running threat to win.

From the inbox

Q: Huge Bills fan here. But a realistic one. They're not going to be a playoff team with that anemic offense, the main reason being the lack of QB. That's obvious, and you don't have to be a rocket scientist to see it. My question is how they can fix the situation next season. Are there veteran QBs who will be free to pursue after the current season?

Justin in Orchard Park, New York

A: This is where the trade to acquire Sammy Watkins hurts. They might have been able to get a quarterback with a first-round pick. It might be worth a call to Chicago to see if they can get Jay Cutler, but there is no guarantee the Bears would trade him. Other than that, there aren't any good answers. You saw last year how teams in need of quarterbacks tried to fix their problems. They went for veterans who were mostly backups -- Ryan Fitzpatrick, Matt Schaub, Matt Cassel, Brian Hoyer, Josh McCown, etc. Not too exciting. The Bills got similar value with the signing of Kyle Orton. The Bills may have no choice but to keep Orton as the starter next year.

Q: Can some of the problem with Jets GM John Idzik be that the owner wanted someone from the Seahawks' front office even if it wasn't a good fit in hopes of getting a piece of the magic that is Seattle right now. The Jets basically have given Idzik a job he really wasn't suited for to begin with.

Craig in Tacoma, Washington

A: I'm not sold that Woody Johnson wanted to hire a Seattle guy at all costs. Remember, Idzik was hired before the Seahawks won a Super Bowl. I buy the idea he wanted someone who was a financial cap person. The Jets were in bad shape with the cap. The franchise took on a big debt load in building the new stadium. This was a business decision. So far, though, it hasn't worked out on the football side.

Q: There has been a lot of talk about Robert Griffin III's regression, but I haven't seen a lot of discussion as to why he's regressed. Everyone seems to be in consensus that his worsened mechanics and decision-making are to blame, but it seems very strange to think that a pro QB's mechanics can regress as drastically as RG III's supposedly have. I haven't watched RG III's film, so I'm not sure, but were his mechanics and decision-making that good to begin with? Or did his now-diminished explosiveness compensate for his already-shaky mechanics?

Cal in Los Angeles

A: This happens more than you think. Even though veteran quarterbacks are professional, injuries can cause mechanics to go haywire. Coaches sometimes take the blame. Players have to take the blame. Jay Gruden wanted to keep Griffin in the pocket more to protect him from injuries. Griffin never seemed comfortable with the adjustment. Not having the offseason in 2013 coming off ACL surgery hampered his development last year. Right now, he's not a very good quarterback. This could be a hard fix, and he probably needs to go to a new team to make things right.

Q: In 2008, the 8-8 Chargers, 9-7 Cardinals and 9-6-1 Eagles turned heads by going a combined 5-2 against other teams (not each other) in the playoffs. Take away that fluky year, however, and what you're left with is the fact that playoff teams with sub-.600 records in the Super Bowl era have otherwise gone 29-67 in the postseason versus .600-plus teams, and only two of them -- the 1979 Rams and 2011 Giants -- made it to a Super Bowl. To me, that's a pretty strong indication that sub-.600 teams are seldom legitimate contenders. I know you're not a fan of altering the playoff format, but wouldn't you agree that, based on history, sub-.600 playoff teams shouldn't get to play at home if facing an opponent with a better record?

Michael in Monroe, Michigan

A: First, congrats on doing that type of research. You are right about the chances of a team with fewer than 10 wins having great success in the playoffs. But you also have to look closely at the schedules they play. This is the classic year to see that. The records of teams in the AFC North are pumped up by their games against the NFC South and AFC South. The Bengals are 6-1-1 against those divisions, the Steelers 5-2, the Ravens 5-1 and the Browns 5-3. I believe a sub-.500 team shouldn't get a home game in the playoffs, but I still like the NFL's position of respecting the importance of divisional play. That would go out the door if you reward home games purely on records.

Q: Given the poor performance the Steelers have had against sub-.500 competition, at what point does ownership begin to put that on the coaching staff? I know the Rooneys have been the benchmark for consistency and longevity of coaches. However, I believe a major piece of this poor performance is poor preparation and a lack of discipline, neither of which were evident under Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher.

Broc in Casselton, North Dakota

A: The Rooneys believe in Mike Tomlin, and I don't see that changing. As bad as the loss to the Saints was, the Steelers got a great victory over the Bengals a week later. I believe the problem is more of a talent issue than it is the coaching. The Steelers aren't very good in the secondary and they struggle with the pass rush. The scouting department will fix that. Tomlin is a good coach and a good motivator. Right now, they have a great chance to win the AFC North. That should silence most of the complaints.

Q: I often see you and other readers discuss recommendations for additional rosters spots due to extended or season-long injuries. Why don't more teams and players combine the punter and kicker into one person and free up another roster spot to add depth at other positions. Take the Detroit Lions' punter, Sam Martin, who also has kickoff responsibilities after a score, why can't he also focus on his accuracy and become the field goal kicker as well. Even under the current CBA would that not add much needed depth and even extra wiggle room under the salary cap?

Derek in Houston

A: I don't see any need for that. Each year, kickers get better and stronger in every area. Kickers are making longer field goals with more consistency. Punters are getting better with their gross and net averages. Those who do the kickoffs are kicking it deeper, getting more touchbacks and getting fewer returns. If you go with one player for both jobs, every unit would falter if the kicker gets a hip-pointer or a leg injury.