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Rushing still matters in pass-happy NFL

Column as I see ’em, Week 13:

• The NFL is increasingly a pass-happy league. Three quarters of the way through the season, teams are averaging 246.5 yards a game, which is on pace for a record. That’s no surprise, since the passing yardage numbers have increased for seven consecutive seasons.

But rushing still matters, and when December rolls around, the running game tends to accelerate in importance.

Check out Sunday’s box scores. In 12 of the 14 games, the winning team ran for more than 120 yards. The overall league average is 108.5 rushing yards a game, an eight-year low.

Those dozen winning teams, in fact, averaged 158 yards on the ground. Tennessee had 210 yards. The Bills had 187 in their 30-21 win over the Texans. Carolina and Arizona, the two best teams in the NFC, each rushed for 175 yards. Seattle had 173, Tampa Bay 166. The Bears ran for 170 yards in a loss.

These figures must bring a big smile to the face of Bills coach Rex Ryan, a firm believer in pounding teams into submission with the running game.

The 2009 Jets, his first team as head coach, are the last team to run 600 times in a season. The Bills are one of three current teams that have more rushing attempts than passes.

The Bills are fourth in the NFL in rushing with 1,691 yards in 12 games. They’re fourth in average per rush at 4.7. They’re running 50.4 percent of the time. Only Carolina (52.5 percent run) and Seattle (51.2 percent run) have taken the ground more than Buffalo. The league average is 42 percent run, 58 percent pass.

It helps, of course, that all three teams have mobile quarterbacks. The Panthers’ Cam Newton, the Seahawks’ Russell Wilson and the Bills’ Tyrod Taylor rank 1-2-3 in rushing among league QBs.

All three can make big plays in the passing game. But their teams prefer a balanced attack. It’s gotten Seattle to the last two Super Bowls and has helped Carolina to a 12-0 record this season.

Ryan hopes to achieve that sort of success with Taylor at the helm. The record shows that establishing the run and limiting the need for Taylor to make a lot of throws is a winning formula. The Bills are 6-0 when Taylor passes fewer than 30 times. They’re rushing for 171 yards a game in their wins.

“When we’re under 30 pass attempts, we’re undefeated,” Ryan said Monday. “That’s how we built this team. If we have to pass it every down, that’s not the best scenario. Our QB is fourth rated in NFL, ahead of Tom Brady.

“Good sign that we might have the quarterback. Our quarterback No. 1 in the league in the fourth quarter. We want to control the pace of the game with our running game.”

In the last two games, the Bills have run effectively early and softened up two hot defenses for big pass plays down the field. Taylor has completed six passes of 28 yards or more the last two weeks, five of them deep balls of 30-plus yards to Sammy Watkins.

As Bills fans know, running the ball tends to become even more vital late in the season, when the weather turns bad and field conditions aren’t always ideal. So you can expect to see Ryan emphasize the ground game even more as the Bills enter the season’s final quarter, looking to make a playoff push.

The Eagles are 27th in the league against the run. Something tells me we’ll see quite a bit of LeSean McCoy, who is back on top of his game, next Sunday against his former mates in Philadelphia.

• Don’t look now, but Seattle is on another of its signature late-season runs. After a 2-4 start, the Seahawks have won five of six to take hold of the sixth spot in the NFC playoff race. If the playoffs began today, they’d play Green Bay, whom they beat in overtime in last year’s conference title game.

This is nothing new for Pete Carroll’s squad, which is looking to become the first team since the Bills to reach three straight Super Bowls. Last year, the Seahawks were 3-3, then won nine of 10 on their way to the Bowl. In 2012, they were 4-4 before running off seven of their last eight.

The Seahawks’ offense has been resurgent of late, despite the absence of Marshawn Lynch. Seattle has averaged 35.3 points and 459 yards of offense during its current three-game winning streak. Meanwhile, the defense has allowed an average of 49.3 rushing yards in the three wins.

Quarterback Russell Wilson, who took a lot of heat during a slow start, has been sensational. In his last three games, Wilson has completed 66 of 86 passes (77 percent) with 11 touchdown passes and no interceptions. You don’t hear too many complaints about his $22 million salary these days.

Meanwhile, undrafted running back Thomas Rawls is making a run at rookie of the year. Rawls, who finished his career at Central Michigan after a larceny charge cut short his career at Michigan, is 10th in the league in rushing with 786 yards. He has 391 yards over the last three games. Now that the Ram’s Todd Gurley has hit a wall, the rookie race seems wide open.

• Now that the Patriots have dropped two straight and J.J. Watt went missing against the Bills, Cam Newton of the unbeaten Panthers has established himself as the clear favorite in the race for league MVP.

Newton has taken his game to a new level in the second half of the season. Over his last four games, he has 11 TD passes and only one interception. He has completed 67.6 percent of his passes during that stretch and tossed five TD passes in a game twice in the last three weeks.

He has also been great in the clutch. On Sunday, he led the Panthers to a 41-38 win in New Orleans with a late drive, hitting Jerricho Cotchery with a 15-yard TD pass with 1:05 to play. Newton threw for 331 yards and five TDs and also rushed 10 times for 49 yards.

• Veteran wideout Brandon Marshall had 12 catches for 131 yards in the Jets’ 23-20 overtime win over the Giants. Marshall, who caught a TD pass from Ryan Fitzpatrick to get the Jets to overtime, became the first player in history to surpass 1,000 yards receiving in a season for four teams. Marshall has also gone over 1,000 yards with the Broncos, Dolphins and Bears.

• The Bills have been in the habit of catching teams when they’re on a roll. The Patriots were 9-0 when they hosted the Bills two Monday nights ago. The Chiefs were on a four-game win streak when they hosted Buffalo, and the Texans had won four straight before losing here on Sunday. Now they get an Eagles team that is coming off a 35-28 win in New England, which is being called the upset of the season.

• Adrian Peterson wasn’t happy with his coaches after carrying just eight times for 18 yards in the Vikings’ 38-7 home loss to the Seahawks. It was the fewest carries in a game for Peterson – the NFL’s rushing leader with 1,182 yards – since December 2013.

• There was an NFL meeting last week to discuss the league’s future in Los Angeles. Fans in Oakland, San Diego and St. Louis are up in arms at the prospect of losing their teams. It must be comforting for Bills fans to know there are no longer any such fears in Pegulaville.