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Two backs are better than one

Panthers coach John Fox believes in running the football, moving the chains and eating the clock.

He doesn't care if you know that and never strays from the game plan. That's because the Panthers are not satisfied just to bust a big play. They want to break the will of the defense.

"I've always just been a firm believer that is pretty much the essence of football," Fox said. "It is the toughness element of the game. You can rip an opponent's heart out by driving right down the field running it."

It helps that Fox has two running backs who know how to operate in the Panthers offense.

Stephen Davis, acquired as a free agent after he was waived by the Redskins, may be the biggest reason the Panthers are playing New England in Super Bowl XXXVIII on Sunday.

The 29-year-old veteran, who rushed for 1,444 yards and eight touchdowns, softens the underbelly of a defense by pounding runs inside. Then second-year pro Foster beats them with his speed around the corners. In the 14-3 win over Philadelphia in the NFC Championship Game, they combined for 33 carries and 136 yards.

"(Davis) has been a huge reason why we are where we are," Fox said. "Not just a football player and what he has accomplished on the field, but the fact this hasn't been his first barbecue. He's been around for a while. He understands what it takes to play in this league. He has been an outstanding role model for DeShaun Foster and showing him how you go about your business to be a professional."

Foster had most of his rookie season wiped out by a knee injury. And considering how his career at UCLA ended, he benefited from Davis' example.

With three games remaining in his senior season, Foster was discovered driving an SUV owned by actor-director Eric Laneuville and suspended for the remainder of the season for violating NCAA benefit rules.

Foster was forced to be patient playing behind Davis. But it was worth his wait. When Davis pulled a quadriceps muscle at the end of a 64-yard run against St. Louis in the divisional playoff, Foster enjoyed a breakout performance with 95 yards on 21 carries.

Known for his speed, Foster demonstrated his power against the Eagles. He broke five tackles on an awe-inspiring 1-yard touchdown run, the first of his pro career.

"I think he has been tremendous," Fox said of Foster. "We had to get him back into playing shaper as the season has wore on. We did not tax him very hard in training camp. I think he has improved and the whole world is getting to see what he is all about, but it is something we have known about."

Davis used the extra week off to heal from his injury and will start the game, but the Patriots can expect to see plenty of Foster.

"You will not lose anything with either of us in the game," Davis said. "He is a guy that runs just as hard as I do. He can get it done and we put that much added pressure on the opposing team."

Said Foster, "It's harder to game plan against two guys, so it brings another dimension to the offense and helps us. I'm a change of pace to what he's doing."

Carolina will put pressure on the Pats by running out of any formation. It's the best way to protect a caretaker quarterback like Jake Delhomme, who attempted just 14 passes Jan. 18. Carolina has scored first in 14 of 19 games this season, and Davis allows the Panthers to dominate the fourth quarter. They tied league records in winning seven games by three points or fewer, including three in overtime.

"Adding Stephen Davis was like the last tire that needed to be rotated on the car," Panthers defensive end Brentson Buckner said. "Everything has been riding smoothly since then. He came in when we were in our offseason conditioning program. Guys said, "This is our horse. This is the guy who is going to get us the hard yards.'

"And on defense, we knew he was going to keep us off the field. Now you know plays are going to get cut in half because we were going to eat the clock up."

But before the Patriots can stop Davis and Foster, they have to contend with Carolina's big offensive line.

"I look at the whole thing," Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson said. "This offensive line has 34 years of experience between the five of them, which is a lot of football. They have a nastiness about them, and I think they are the tone-setters for the whole team. It can be a long day if we're not ready for them."