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Want to reach playoffs? Find two good running backs

The dynamic duo of LenDale White (left) and Chris Johnson have helped lead the Titans atop the AFC.

Whatever you call them, they share one successful old school trait: Two running backs are better than one. The five NFL teams that had two backs with at least 160 carries apiece are all in the playoffs.

The Tennessee Titans are home to Smash and Dash  LenDale White and Chris Johnson. The duo helped the Titans work their way from the AFC's sixth and final playoff team a year ago to the No. 1 seed, the NFL's best record and home-field advantage through the playoffs.

The defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants used Earth and Wind  Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward  with a little Fire (Ahmad Bradshaw) to grab the NFC's No. 1 seed. DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, Carolina's duo that recently launched a Web site to feature their Double Trouble moniker, are a big reason the Panthers are the No. 2 seed in the NFC.

Miami earned its first playoff berth since 2000 largely thanks to the Wildcat offense led by Ronnie Brown (214 carries) and Ricky Williams (160). In Baltimore, Le'Ron McClain and Willis McGahee got help from rookie Ray Rice in running the Ravens back into the playoffs.

Titans coach Jeff Fisher expects more teams will follow in a copycat league.

"That's just where people are moving. I mean the Giants are doing it. Many of the other clubs are doing it as well. Our whole plan going in was to keep them fresh for the final stretch of the regular season and hopefully the playoffs," Fisher said.

Pittsburgh tried to do it this season, drafting Rashard Mendenhall to team with Willie Parker in a plan undone by Mendenhall's shoulder injury after only 19 carries. Coach Mike Tomlin's Steelers earned the AFC's No. 2 seed without that combo, but he will try again in 2009.

"Ideally, you'd like to envision trying to put something on the table like that," Tomlin said.

Doubling up in the backfield isn't new.

Pittsburgh used Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier for the offensive side of its Steel Curtain defense. The undefeated Miami Dolphins of 1972 split the work between Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris.

Tennessee and Carolina already had good running backs. White started each game in 2007 for the Titans and ran for 1,110 yards, while Williams averaged 5 yards a carry last season for the Panthers.

But Williams' success didn't stop the Panthers from using the 13th pick overall on Stewart trying to return to the two-back combo they used in 2003 when they reached the Super Bowl.

Tennessee drafted Johnson with the 24th pick overall, and the rookie with a 4.24-second speed in the 40 ran for 1,228 yards and nine TDs with only one fumble. White's production fell, but he still carried 200 times for 773 yards, with 15 TDs himself.

"Teams are trying to build their rosters with depth at the running back position and take advantage of the ability they have at the position with the intention of keeping people fresh," Fisher said.

Baltimore drafted Rice in the second round even with McClain and McGahee on the roster. Ravens coach John Harbaugh said why bench a couple when a team has three?

"So we use them where we can, when we can, according to health, according to who's most effective, according to the game plan," Harbaugh said. "That makes us stronger as a group, as a team. That's really the whole idea."

Good intentions are one thing. Doing it successfully? That's the challenge as splitting the work between running backs can lead to tensions. Winning can soothe those away.

White fussed only once publicly this season about not touching the ball enough, and that was after he had only one of the Titans' 11 rushes in their 34-13 loss to the New York Jets on Nov. 23. A calming talk with Fisher followed, and now White says he isn't worried about the number of carries he gets.

"I'm winning football games on top of scoring," said White, who ran for a career-high 15 TDs. "Helping win football games. It is what it is. You can't complain. All you can do is when you get your opportunities is to make the best of them and help your team win."

The Giants managed to keep everyone happy: Jacobs (Earth) and Ward (Wind) became only the fifth pair of teammates to each rush for 1,000 yards this season. And the Panthers' duo are just the fourth set to score 10 or more touchdowns apiece with Williams scoring 18 and Stewart 10.

"Those guys are terrific backs," Carolina coach John Fox said. "We are blessed to have them. Both of them had outstanding days. At the conclusion of a hard-fought season, I didn't care how we won. We won and we're champs, and we got the second seed and we got a first-round bye."

The two-back system also results in less wear and tear on a runner, keeping them fresh for the playoffs.

White said he feels healthy enough for another 200 carries. He agrees that more teams will try to stockpile talent at running back even if they already have a stud at the spot.

"You're giving his legs some rest. You're not counting on him to carry the ball 40 times. You can give someone else 15, and he can get 25. I think he would greatly appreciate that as well," White said.

Now comes the true test of the theory. Baltimore gets the first chance at Miami on Sunday, while the Titans, Giants and Panthers wait to see who they host in the divisional round. White, for one, can't wait.

"It's going to be a good thing for the playoffs when we're as fresh as we've ever been," White said.

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