By Rob Maaddi
AP Pro Football Writer
NFL teams ran the ball less than ever in 2016, yet six playoff teams had a 1,000-yard rusher.
Ezekiel Elliot (Cowboys), Jay Ajayi (Dolphins), Le’Veon Bell (Steelers), LeGarrette Blount (Patriots), Devonta Freeman (Falcons) and Lamar Miller (Texans) each topped 1,000 and will run again in January. Last year, Adrian Peterson was the only 1,000-yard rusher in the playoffs.
“I think really getting the running game going was crucial to us starting the ball rolling in the right direction,” injured Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill said after the team bounced back from a 1-4 start to win six in a row.
Ajayi had three 200-yard games, including 204 in a win over Pittsburgh that started Miami’s turnaround.
“I know that when I’m productive, the team is going to be successful,” Ajayi said. “But I feel that my play also allows a lot of guys to be able to make plays as well, and it’s shown.”
The formula for winning has changed drastically since the days teams relied on a smashmouth, ball-control running offense. It began with the evolution of the West Coast offense as the short-passing game replaced many run plays.
It continued when more teams started incorporating spread offenses, using three and four wide receivers and putting quarterbacks in the shotgun formation for many snaps. Fullbacks lost their jobs and running backs became more specialized.
This season, teams averaged 26 rushing attempts per game. That’s the fewest total in league history, according to Pro Football Reference. The average was 36.9 in 1976, 30.2 in 1986, 28.3 in 1996 and 28.2 in 2006.
But several successful teams had effective ground games led by a workhorse back.
The Patriots (14-2) ran the ball 99 more times this season than last. Blount’s success helped 39-year-old Tom Brady post one of his best years. Blount ran for 1,161 yards and a league-best 18 TDs while Brady tossed 28 TDs and a career-low two interceptions after returning from his four-game suspension.
“LeGarrette’s been very consistent for us,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “He’s been durable so he’s there for us every week, gets a lot of tough yards. He’s a big back but he’s had some explosive plays as well. It’s been good for us in really a lot of situations. He can run inside, he can run outside. He’s athletic and he’s got good quickness and agility for a 245-250 pound back, whatever he is.”
In Dallas, Elliott’s emergence took pressure off fellow rookie Dak Prescott. Elliott led the NFL with 1,631 yards rushing and the dynamic duo helped the Cowboys (13-3) finish with the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
“He has gotten better and better every week,” Cowboys coach Jason Garrett said of Elliott.
The Steelers, Falcons and Patriots had three of the best balanced offenses in the league. Each team had a 1,000-yard rusher and ranked in the top 5 in passing.
Bell ran for 1,268 yards and Ben Roethlisberger threw for 3,819 yards. Bell also caught 75 passes for 616 yards.
“I don’t just want to be known as a running back,” Bell said. “I want to be a guy who’s known in every situation, a playmaker who can catch the ball out of the backfield and make big plays, plays that can obviously change the game.”
Freeman had 1,079 yards rushing and Matt Ryan threw for 4,944 to lead Atlanta (11-5) to the No. 2 seed in the NFC.
Of the six playoff teams with a 1,000-yard rusher, only the Texans ran the ball fewer times than last year, but they gained more yards thanks to Miller. He had 1,073 yards.
“The running game is very important in the playoffs,” Houston coach Bill O’Brien said. “It’s important to be able to run the football, to be in manageable third downs, to control the tempo of the game.”
Oakland (12-4) is another playoff team with a strong rushing offense that used three backs. Latavius Murray (788), Jalen Richard (491) and DeAndre Washington (467) helped the Raiders rank sixth in yards rushing.
AP Sports Writers Kyle Hightower, Will Graves and Kristie Rieken contributed to this report.