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Oct 4, 2005 3:57 AM

The 2004 pro football season may be remembered by some as the "Year of the Pass."

Scoring was up league-wide, and the enforcement of the "five-yard rule" against defensive backs helped the air game. Daunte Culpepper (39 TDs, 11 INTs) and Donovan McNabb (31 TDs, 8 INTs) enjoyed terrific seasons, while two-time MVP Peyton Manning broke Dan Marino’s 1984 record with 49 touchdown tosses.

While the focus was on the increase in passing efficiency, it was easy to overlook the fact that 2004 was also the "Year the Running Games Returned." Last fall, there were an NFL record 179 games of at least 100 yards. Former Rams and Bills’ Chuck Knox would have been delighted (They didn’t call him "Ground Chuck" because of his dietary habits.)

Indeed, the flair may be in the air, but winning with the run is just as fun. Just over a year ago, Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher wanted to get back to the power running attack that had been a franchise staple. The Steelers uncharacteristically went to the air attack in 2003, finishing 30th in the NFL in rushing with 93 yards per game, averaging just 3.3 per carry. The result was a forgettable 6-10 season and failing to make the playoffs for the first time in three years.

Cowher added free agent RB Duce Staley to team with Jerome Bettis and vowed to get back to running the pigskin. Did they ever! Pittsburgh finished second in the league in rushing, averaging 154 yards. The result was a 15-1 regular season. Now, even with Willie Parker taking over for Bettis and Staley, Pittsburgh is still able to run the ball well. Since the start of the 2004 season, the Steelers have averaged 155.8 yards per game and 4.9 a carry. Running well means winning, too: The Steelers are 48-72 under Cowher when they run the ball fewer than 35 times, 84-6-1 when they tote it 35 times or more.

The Falcons enjoyed a dramatic turnaround in 2004 under Jim Mora, Jr. The first-year coach improved the defense and maximized the running talents of QB Michael Vick as the Falcons led the NFL in rushing. Atlanta improved six games from the previous season (5-11), routing the Rams 47-17 in the playoffs with 327 rush yards en route to the NFC Championship game. The Falcons didn’t dazzle offensively (finishing last in passing), but the ground attack carried the load one game shy of the Super Bowl.

Passing attacks may have gotten much of the attention, but bread and butter ground games are still a huge gauge of success.

What stands out? All but one team (Chiefs) made the playoffs. The cumulative winning mark was 88-40. In addition, the consistent ground game helped those teams compete where it’s most difficult to play in the NFL — on the road. Those clubs went a combined 40-27 against the spread away from home. It’s interesting that six of the eight teams were in the AFC, a conference that won the Super Bowl and dominated head-to- head play with the NFC.

The most obvious advantage is that a strong ground attack provides offensive balance. Offenses that are one-dimensional make it easier for defensive coordinators to put together a weekly game plan. Teams that have balance are so much more difficult to defend and slow down. That’s what made the Chiefs so explosive in 2003. Losing RB Priest Holmes for much of last season diminished their versatile offense. Adding RB Corey Dillon was a huge boost for the Patriots, and they finished with brilliant balance — sixth in rushing, No. 11 in passing.

Another factor is ball control. An effective ground game can chew up yards and eat up the clock. An edge in time of possession can have an influence on other areas of the game, too. It can tire out the opposing defense that has to stay on the field for a long time, and can keep the opposition’s offense off the field.

In the 1991 Super Bowl, the Giants went ball-control to keep the pigskin out of the hands of Jim Kelly and the Bills fun-and-gun offense. The Giants won 20-19 as an underdog, and set a Super Bowl record with a 40:33 to 19:27 edge in time of possession! The Bills had the ball less than eight minutes in the second half.

The biggest surprise this season has been Tampa Bay. Rookie RB Cadillac Williams has been sensational and the Bucs are No. 2 in running the football. After three weeks, four of the biggest disappointments (Cardinals, Lions, Raiders, Ravens) were smack at the bottom in yards rushing.

The Steelers have amassed 28,088 rush yards since Cowher took over in 1992 — best in the NFL. Pittsburgh has made the AFC Championship game five times during Cowher’s tenure, in 1994, ’95, ”˜97, ’01 and ’04. Many still marvel at how 2004 saw all kinds of staggering passing numbers put up. McNabb was the first quarterback to top 30 TDs and throw less than 10 interceptions (8), while Manning had a record-setting year with 49 TDs. However, as noted earlier, there were a record number of 100-yard rushing games.

It’s not all about passing, folks. There is more than one way to win a football game — and cover!