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Into The Playoffs On The Run

Improving ground game should put the Cards in better postseason shape


Tim Hightower (left) gives pointers to fellow running back Beanie Wells during last Sunday's win over the Rams.
Larry Fitzgerald's career is built through the pass, and he's well aware he's six receptions shy of the 100-catch mark again this season.

But the Pro Bowl wide receiver insists, "Honestly, I am a big fan of the running game."

"I was two minutes and 40 seconds away from being a Super Bowl champion last year," Fitzgerald said. "Whatever it would take to get back there and hoist that trophy, I could care less if we run it 50 times a game."

The Cards aren't going to run it 50 times a game, so Fitzgerald doesn't have to fret. With a game to go in the regular season, however, these Cardinals are much better at running the ball than last season. The numbers bear that out, with 1,446 rushing yards as a team this season long surpassing the 1,178 the Cards had a season ago.

The improvement in the running game would seem to have the offense better prepared for the postseason – although at this point, the Cardinals aren't willing to go quite that far.

"It's hard to say what you are going into the playoffs," quarterback Kurt Warner said. "The bottom line is what are you when you come out of the playoffs, when it's all said and done. What made us a good playoff team (last year) is we did both things well in the playoffs. That's all that's going to matter, can we do both things well come playoff time. Not what we're doing now."

The Cards did run the ball better in the playoffs last season than the regular season, but there is little question Tim Hightower is a better runner than a year ago and rookie Beanie Wells is better than the version of Edgerrin James that was playing out his career in Arizona.

Hightower is averaging 4.2 yards a carry this season, Wells 4.6. James and Hightower averaged 3.9 and 2.8 yards a carry, respectively, in the regular season last year. The numbers were at 3.9 and 3.8, respectively, in the postseason.

"I don't like to compare to last year," Hightower said. "I just know, with the weapons we have on offense, if we can run the football, that does so much. It's so much harder for defenses in the playoffs when they actually have to game-plan for running backs and the run game."

In the Cardinals' first seven games of the season, they ran for more than 94 yards just once, and that was for 118 in a win in Jacksonville.

In the eight games since, the Cards have at least 110 yards six times – and the two they didn't reach triple-digits were the only two losses, to Carolina and San Francisco.

"It makes you more comfortable handing the ball off feeling like something positive is going to happen as opposed to something negative, putting you behind the eight ball," Warner said. "It's nice to not have to throw in every critical situation."

Wells has a team-best 774 yards rushing, collecting 257 of those in the past three games alone. The explosive nature of his game – he has 27 runs of 10 or more yards this season – was an element long missing for the Cardinals.

The Cardinals are in for a test. The Packers visit this weekend sporting the No. 1 run defense in the league, and there is a good chance the Cards will have to face that same defense again the following week in the playoffs.

That's why Fitzgerald doesn't worry – "In this offense, I know I'll get my opportunities," he said – and is willing to block downfield for the developing ground game.

It can only help with Fitzgerald's ultimate goal.

Said Wells, "Everyone knows, in the playoffs, you have to run the football."

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