In Sunday’s AFC championship game, two of the NFL's fastest teams -- in terms of what their offenses do between plays, not during -- will battle it out with a spot in the Super Bowl on the line.
The New England Patriots and Denver Broncos both rank in the top five in the league in pace of play, according to Football Outsiders. Led by future Hall of Fame quarterbacks, those two high-scoring offenses often forgo a huddle and rush to the line of scrimmage to keep defenders on their heels, strand would-be substitutions on the sidelines, and sometimes limit what the defensive coordinators can call.
While Tom Brady and the Patriots, at 24.65 seconds between plays, slowed down slightly from 2012, when they led the league in offensive pace, they trailed only the Philadelphia Eagles and Buffalo Bills -- two teams that uncoincidentally were driven by first-year head coaches who came from the college ranks.
The Broncos, at 24.73 between plays, ranked fourth.
The Ravens weren’t far behind those two AFC contenders. With quarterback Joe Flacco often looking most comfortable while operating the hurry-up offense, the Ravens continued to run their offense at a high tempo this season. While they slowed down a tick from 2012, they still ranked seventh in the NFL at 25.79 seconds between plays.
And in situation-neutral pace, which Football Outsiders computes to eliminate things like two-minute drills and late-game clock-killing situations to get a truer idea of the offense’s intentions when it comes to offensive pace, the Ravens were actually fifth.
But, as Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning said to me on a conference call before the Broncos hosted the Ravens in the season opener, “Just because you're running plays fast, if you're not blocking anybody or not running good routes or not accurate with the football, I don't think it really matters. It's still an execution game.”
Like the Ravens, the Patriots and Broncos operated quickly. But unlike the Ravens, they also operated efficiently, which explains why both those teams finished in the top three in the league in scoring and are playing in the AFC championship game this Sunday. The Ravens, meanwhile, were 25th in scoring and missed the playoffs.
It is also worth noting that the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco, who will meet in Sunday’s NFC championship game, ranked in the bottom four in offensive pace.
Still, the league as a whole is trending away from the traditional huddle toward the no-huddle or a quick muddle huddle. According to Football Outsiders, the league average in offensive pace was 34 hundredths of a second faster in 2013 than it was in 2012.
So to get back to the AFC championship game, the Ravens won’t necessarily have to slow down on offense. They just need to execute better, like they did late last season when they beat both the Patriots and Broncos on the way to winning a Super Bowl.