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Winning combination

Jason Cole
Yahoo Sports

LaDainian Tomlinson left in a huff. Tiki Barber and Shaun Alexander exited valiantly. Larry Johnson and Jamal Lewis looked simply spent.

One by one, the NFL's top featured running backs have been dismissed from the playoffs, replaced by one duo after another. Based on that and recent history, it appears that the one-back days are numbered.

At least for championship purposes.

As the Indianapolis Colts, New England Patriots, Chicago Bears and New Orleans Saints head into the conference championship games on Sunday, each team is proof of the trendy idea that having two interchangeable running backs is a winner. While backs such as Tomlinson, Alexander and Johnson have each set records over the past two years, the two-back system has been more productive in terms of winning.

No team has proved that better than the Colts, who will host the AFC title game this weekend. The Colts got there despite having made a difficult choice after 2005 to let go of Edgerrin James, the team's featured back for the better part of six years.

Instead, the Colts have alternated between rookie first-round pick Joseph Addai and former James backup Dominic Rhodes. Addai became the starter in the playoffs after topping 1,000 yards this season. But against Baltimore last Saturday, Rhodes played a quietly crucial role in the fourth quarter.

With Addai limited to 39 yards on 16 carries, Rhodes came in and rushed for 56 yards on 14 carries. Nine of those carries came on the final drive of the game, when the Colts burned 7:16 from the clock and kicked a field goal that gave them the final 15-6 margin with 23 seconds remaining.

"We told him that he was going to be a big part of what we do, even if he didn't start [in the playoffs]," Colts coach Tony Dungy said. "Dominic has understood that the whole way, even as Joseph started to play more."

The greater point is that what the Colts are doing is becoming more the norm among successful teams.

Over the past five years, the Patriots in 2004 were the only eventual champion to have a back who averaged more than 20 carries a game. Two years later, Corey Dillon is now splitting time with rookie Laurence Maroney.

"The way it works now, it's really a two-person job," said New England coach Bill Belichick, who even subbed Dillon regularly in 2004, almost never playing him on third down.

This run counters how teams with feature backs dominated the Super Bowl landscape in the 1990s as Emmitt Smith of Dallas, Terrell Davis of Denver and Marshall Faulk of St. Louis combined to lead their teams to six titles.

Before them, great backs such as Walter Payton, Marcus Allen, Franco Harris, John Riggins and Larry Csonka defined their Pro Football Hall of Fame legacies at the Super Bowl.

This year, teams like the Saints have alternated backs almost dependent on the situation. New Orleans, which took Reggie Bush with the No. 2 overall pick, has recently leaned heavily on veteran Deuce McAllister. In beating Philadelphia on Saturday, McAllister had 143 yards rushing on 21 carries.

But Bush continues to play a vital role, particularly whenever the Saints are trying to spread out defenses. Bush scored a touchdown on an outside run and then changed direction in the backfield to break a 25-yard run. Bush finished with 52 yards on 12 carries and the Saints ended up with 208 yards on the ground.

As Dillon has called it, it's a matter of being the "tenderizer." One back often softens the defense and creates opportunities for the next guy.

"That's how you want it to happen," said Addai, who had 122 yards on 25 carries in the first round of the playoffs against Kansas City. "My whole thing this season has been to watch Dominic really carefully when I'm not in there, trying to pick up how he's attacking the defense and what the defense is trying to do."

Addai was fortunate in that he split time in college at LSU, making the transition easier.

"It's not the way you necessarily want it to be. Everybody wants to be out there all the time, but this really works and that's the important part," Addai said.

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