Deflategate jokes aside, the coach was making a valid point. With all the focus Sunday on the two quarterbacks, New England’s Tom Brady and Atlanta’s Matt Ryan, this showdown could come down to the running games, with the Patriots’ strategist-in-chief looking to play ball control — or, take the air out of the ball — by leaning on the clock-chewing ground game.
“One way you shorten the game is by running the ball,” said Wannstedt, who was head coach of the Miami Dolphins from 2000-04, facing Belichick’s Patriots twice a season. “Another way they do it is Brady taking the play clock all the way down to one or two seconds. Watch for that too.”
The Patriots have distinctly different running backs in the pounding, 250-pound LeGarrette Blount, who led the NFL with 18 rushing touchdowns, and the quick-as-a-blink Dion Lewis, who played for Wannstedt at the University of Pittsburgh and is equally as effective as a receiver out of the backfield.
Asked who will be the difference-maker in this game, Lewis said: “Whoever can protect the ball best and not allow big plays.”
The Falcons, meanwhile, have a devastating one-two punch in running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Freeman had 1,079 yards rushing, and 462 receiving. Coleman ran for 520 and caught passes for 421.
“They’re great running backs,” Belichick said. “They can get outside, they can run inside, they do a great job of breaking tackles. They make people miss in space. They run over guys, they run through them, they dodge them, and they don’t fumble.”
Freeman is especially dangerous. His 13 total touchdowns this season were the fifth-most in the league among running backs.
“Devonta, he’s real agile, as you’ve seen this whole season,” Falcons right tackle Ryan Schraeder said. “He can cut on a dime, and he’s real jukey. He runs physically hard. I think he’s a pit bull, man. He’s ready to take on whoever comes after him.”
This game could be an echo of the New York Giants’ 20-19 victory over Buffalo in 1991. Belichick was defensive coordinator of the Giants at the time, and drew up a scheme that encouraged the Bills to run the ball with Thurman Thomas, as opposed to letting future Hall of Famer Jim Kelly dictate the tempo with his K-Gun passing attack.
“I think the running game was the least of our concerns in that game,” Belichick said, according to Giants.com, looking back at that game. “Thurman Thomas is a great back. We knew he was going to get some yards. But I didn’t feel like we wanted to get into a game where they threw the ball 45 times.
“I knew if they had some success running the ball, they would stay with it. And I always felt when we needed to stop the run we could stop it.”
History would have remembered that game differently had Buffalo’s Scott Norwood converted on his 47-yard field goal at the end of the game.
Kelly doesn’t necessarily credit that Giants victory with Belichick’s game plan.
“It’s just that defensively we missed so many tackles, and offensively we were never on the field,” Kelly said. “When you’re only on the field 18 minutes in the whole game, you’re not going to get there. Their offense kept us off the field, but I think a lot of it has to do with things we did, too, or didn’t do.”
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer