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Panthers running back savors a homecoming

Signing with the Panthers was the best career choice Stephen Davis ever made: He can sleep in his own bed twice a week, tuck his children in at night and spend time with his extended family.

He's also headed to the Super Bowl for the first time in his career. The running back's homecoming is a major reason the Panthers advanced to the Feb. 1 game against the Patriots.

Just more than a week from the biggest game of his career, Davis hasn't stopped to reflect on his dream season. He rushed for a career-best 1,444 yards as the focal point of a run-oriented offense and was selected to the Pro Bowl.

"I haven't looked back yet; maybe when the season is over I can take time and look at the whole season and enjoy the whole season," he said. "Right now, the only thing I am worrying about is that we have one more game, and it is the biggest game of the season."

After seven seasons with the Redskins, three of them Pro Bowl years, Davis, 29, was considered a misfit in Steve Spurrier's offense and was cast aside during the offseason. Scouring the market for work, only Carolina and the Texans showed any real interest in the back.

As a native of Spartanburg, S.C., where the Panthers hold training camp, and because his primary residence is 90 minutes from Charlotte in Columbia, S.C., picking the Panthers was a no-brainer.

His homecoming has meant as much to him as winning games and proving he's still one of the league's top backs. Media-shy and leery of accepting the star role, being home this season is one of the few topics Davis truly opens up about.

"Being able to go home some nights and sleep in my own bed, seeing my kids, my mother, seeing my grandmother before she died, that was important to me," he said. "A lot of guys don't get the opportunity and I am blessed to have that opportunity. I am also blessed to see my family during a season that has been so rewarding.

"I am having fun and they are having fun."

CONTRACT ON BACK BURNER: Ty Law knows he'll play cornerback for New England in the Super Bowl. He also knows that might be his last game with the Patriots.

They could unload him for salary-cap reasons, just as they did his former secondary partner, Lawyer Milloy.

"All I can do is go out there and play and, hopefully, I've proved myself enough to where they want to keep me around," Law said, "but there's an understanding within myself that this is a business and a business first."

But "that's not in the forefront of my mind" with the Super Bowl coming up, said Law, who is signed through 2005.

Milloy played in the past four Pro Bowls but was released five days before the season after efforts to restructure his contract failed. He signed with Buffalo.

Law, headed to his third straight Pro Bowl, has a $5.5-million salary for 2004 plus a $1-million reporting bonus. He's scheduled to count $9.5-million toward the salary cap next season under the seven-year, $50-million deal he signed in 1999.

He didn't say whether he would be willing to restructure that. The club has not commented on Law's future.

After Sunday's 24-14 win over Indianapolis in the AFC Championship Game, he said, "Hopefully, I will be here for the long haul. I would like to retire here."

EX-BUC SIGHTING: Former Bucs receiver Marquise Walker, a third-round draft pick in 2002 who has yet to catch an NFL pass, has signed a 2004 free-agent contract with the Patriots, his fourth team.

Walker, the Bucs' first draft pick under Jon Gruden, is not part of this year's Patriots team but was signed to a "futures" one-year contract worth $305,000, the league minimum for a player of his experience. He will not be on the roster for Super Bowl XXXVIII.

Walker was traded by the Bucs to Arizona in June in exchange for running back Thomas Jones but was waived by the Cardinals in August. The Bengals picked him up only to cut him two days later, and he was signed in November to the practice squad of the Titans, who sought to convert the 6-foot-2 receiver to tight end.

_ GREG AUMAN, TIMES WIRES

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