XLVI Preview: Running backs

Neither the Patriots nor the Giants are known for their running games.

These are pass-happy teams that threw on 60 percent of their plays from scrimmage during the regular season. The highest-ranked rusher between the teams, BenJarvus Green-Ellis, had only 667 yards, finishing behind 26 other backs. In terms of yards per rush, the Patriots ranked 21st in the league. The Giants? Dead last.

And they had no home-run ability out of the backfield.¬†New England and New York were two of only six teams that didn’t have a single 40-yard run during the regular season. Only the Giants (four) had fewer 20-yard runs than the Patriots (five).

That, of course, only reaffirms the idea that running backs truly are worth a dime a dozen or less in this league. After all, it’s now been 13 years since an All-Pro running back last won the Super Bowl.

But that doesn’t mean that teams don’t depend on and hope for some offensive balance.

Both the Giants and Patriots had decent seasons defending the run, finishing 14th and 16th respectively. But the Pats have really kicked it up a notch in the playoffs, having held the Broncos and Ravens — two top-10 rushing teams from the regular season — to only 3.7 yards per carry on the road to the Super Bowl.

That probably leads many to believe that the Pats will have the edge on the ground next Sunday, but not so fast — New York has outrushed New England on a per-carry basis in these playoffs (4.2 to 4.0), with Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs looking fresh while combining for 327 rushing yards in three postseason games.

While Green-Ellis and Bradshaw are the leading men, Jacobs has gotten a lot of secondary reps in New York and Danny Woodhead has been a factor in the New England backfield this month. And while Stevan Ridley was inactive for the conference title game, he was actually the Patriots’ most productive rusher late in the season. Let’s compare the two committees.

Giants (Bradshaw/Jacobs): They have an edge in terms of both experience (they both played roles in New York’s 2007 Super Bowl victory) and freshness (neither has carried it more than 20 times since Week 6). Both were hampered by injuries late in the year, but both are getting healthier each week. The bye week prior to the Super Bowl should only help. Bradshaw, Jacobs and regular third-stringer D.J. Ware also combined to catch 76 passes for 575 yards, which is something to consider because New England’s defense has struggled against pass-catching backs this season. And here’s a key for a team that only relies on the run to keep defenses honest: on 531 touches this year, that trio has only lost one fumble.

Patriots (Green-Ellis/Woodhead/Ridley): Ridley averaged 1.4 yards per carry more than Green-Ellis did during the regular season, but fumbles in back-to-back games placed him in Bill Belichick’s doghouse, and now it’s unlikely he gets a featured role in the Super Bowl despite leading the team with 47 carries in December. Green-Ellis is the most experienced member of the trio, and he delivered a quality performance against the Ravens with Ridley inactive and Woodhead struggling.

The Pats were more efficient on the ground when these teams met in Week 9, but Bradshaw didn’t play. And for much of this postseason, it’s been Bradshaw who has stood out most among two groups of rather unimpressive backs. He’s looked a lot more like the player who finished in the top 10 in rushing in 2010 with 1,235 yards than the hobbling man who struggled to stay on the field this fall.

And in addition to that, the Giants have also exhibited an ability to break through with big gains on the ground once in a while. Bradshaw and Jacobs already have four runs of 20 yards or more and two runs of 30-plus yards in these playoffs, while New England has only had a single run of over 13 yards…and that came from tight end¬†Aaron Hernandez.

With Belichick, I wouldn’t rule out Hernandez impacting this game out of the backfield, but that’s not enough to make up for the slight edge I give the Giants in the running game.

Edge: Giants.

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