By Steve Silverman
(CBS) — It was just two years ago that the passing game was everything in the NFL.
If you could move the ball through the air and finish off your drives with touchdowns, you could win in the NFL.
The 2011 season saw the Green Bay Packers, New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints rank as the three top passing regular-season teams. All three of those teams had remarkable regular-season success.
The Packers led the way with a sensational 15-1 regular-season record, while the Pats and Saints were both 13-3.
None of those teams played a lick of regular-season defense. Green Bay gave up more yards than any other team in the league, while the Patriots were right behind. The Saints were a veritable juggernaut, ranking 24th in yards allowed.
The Packers and Patriots also ignored the running game, as both teams finished among the bottom eight teams in the league. The Saints apparently didn’t get the memo, as they finished fourth in average gain per rush.
But a funny thing happened in the postseason. None of those teams won the Super Bowl. They had been dominant in the regular season but their shortcomings at areas of the game that had been staples to NFL success for so many years cost them in the postseason.
The New York Giants defeated the Packers and Patriots as they won the Super Bowl following the 2011 season. While Tom Coughlin’s team finished last in rushing in the regular season, it was the ground game that allowed the Giants to beat the Atlanta Falcons, Packers, San Francisco 49ers and Patriots.
While the NFL is a copycat league and more teams have gotten on the passing bandwagon since then, the true lesson of those three regular-season juggernauts is that one-way teams are not going to win the championship.
Last year, the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers both had solid running games and made it to the Super Bowl. The 49ers were the better defensive team from a statistical perspective than the Ravens, but both teams were much better than the big three from the year before.
Even Bill Belichick seemed to realize that no matter how good Tom Brady was, he couldn’t do it by himself. He rebuilt the Patriots defense in the middle of the season, adding a cornerback in Aqib Talib who could cover receivers and also letting Stevan Ridley run the football.
The Packers got the message this season, and they were rolling with rookie Eddie Lacy running the ball. Green Bay appeared to be in great shape for dictating the outcome of the NFC North until Aaron Rodgers got hurt. They may still be able to pick up their playoff chase if Rodgers is back in the lineup by Thanksgiving against the Detroit Lions.
The Seattle Seahawks have been rolling all season and they bring a 9-1 record into their Week 11 game against the Vikings. The Seahawks have the top-ranked running attack in the league, the 21st -ranked passing game and the third-ranked defense.
On the AFC side, the surprising Chiefs bring an undefeated record into their Week 11 meeting with the explosive Denver Broncos. The Chiefs have the 15th-rated running game, the 28th-ranked passing game and the ninth-ranked defense.
Nobody is denying the importance of the passing game and the Denver Broncos, New Orleans Saints and Detroit Lions rank as the three most prolific passing games in the league this year.
But the running game and defense are coming back into vogue, and doing it much sooner than anyone thought it would happen.
The Bears are in the process of building a prolific offense and Matt Forte gives them a credible running game.
However, the defense is aging and falling apart, and that could be a problem for the foreseeable future.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.