Foster carries load in Davis' absence

ST. LOUIS -- Panthers coach John Fox knows the best way to win football games is to run the ball. That's what defensive coaches do. They try to take the air out of the football, limit the time the defense is on the field and try to wear down opposing defenses with a hard running game.

Things almost went too well for Fox on Saturday. Stephen Davis broke a 64-yard run in the second quarter, but he pulled his left quad muscle on the 63rd yard. Suddenly, his day was over despite 86 yards on six carries. No problem. The sly Fox kept calling the run. DeShaun Foster rushed for 95 yards on 21 carries. Fullback Brad Hoover had a 7-yard touchdown run. Overall, the Panthers rushed for 216 yards on 41 carries in a 29-23 double-overtime victory over the Rams.

"We have a formula and it has worked so far," Fox said. "We've had more close games than I'd like to remember, today included. But they believe in it and never let it show."

Davis' status for the NFC championship game is uncertain although Davis thinks he's fine. Fox said "We'll see" as to his status.

"I was very disappointed," Davis said. "I wanted to be out there. It was a hard-fought game and I wanted to be part of that."

Davis went to the locker room for a series, but later returned to the sideline. However, Fox didn't put him back in. It didn't matter because Foster showed toughness on outside and inside runs. The more the Panthers ran the ball, the more they gashed the Rams' Cover 2 scheme.

"When the biggest part of your offense is to run the ball, guys are getting an opportunity," Hoover said. "When you get the opportunity, you have to either step up or step out. I think all three of the running backs stepped up. A lot was on the line so you have to step up and take advantage of those opportunities."

Fox and offensive coordinator Dan Henning dictated the Rams' defensive strategy by running out of a lot of three-receiver sets. The three-receiver offense forced the Rams into their nickel coverage, which featured two linebackers and three safeties. Middle linebacker Robert Thomas, just back from an injury, had to stay on the sidelines during those three-receiver formations.

Whether it's Foster, Davis or Nick Goings, the Panthers believe they can run on any team.

"It's big," Davis said. "I think we do a great job of running the ball. We have got guys that can move people off the ball. We did a great job today."

Foster stepped up big in leading the Panthers to a road victory over the Colts this year. Drafted in the second round in 2002, Foster looked like a potential rookie of the year until he suffered a bad knee injury during the preseason. He needed microfracture surgery that put his career in jeopardy.

Foster came back from the surgery and was ready in training camp. Some people in the organization believe he could be better than Davis given another year or two.

"It has been a long season and we have been going through this every game," Foster said of the Panthers tendency to play tight, low-scoring games. "So we were ready for the situation and it was good that we were able to pull it off."

Their running set up the big game winning play in which Jake Delhomme split a Cover 2 defense with a 69-yard touchdown pass to Steve Smith.

Delhomme threw only 26 passes. That's why what the Panthers are doing is known as a Super Bowl run.

John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.