ST. LOUIS -- Willie Parker's season ended after his first carry, and the Pittsburgh Steelers will miss the NFL's leading rusher if they get to the playoffs. But they don't miss him yet.
Najeh Davenport, a career backup running back with typical nondescript statistics, has had two huge games since entering the league as a fourth-round draft pick of the Green Bay Packers in 2002. Both have come against the St. Louis Rams, with Davenport's three-touchdown, 123-yard rushing effort pacing a 41-24 victory on Thursday night.
"I took it upon myself to put the offense on my back and carry it," Davenport said. "He's our guy, he's our breadwinner. Not having him, everyone has to pick it up a level."
Parker broke a bone in his lower right leg in the first quarter, giving the Steelers plenty of time to adjust to the new reality.
"Our heart goes out to him because he's a competitor, he's a warrior," coach Mike Tomlin said. "As a team, we're not going to throw a pity party. It's part of the game, people get hurt, we'll adapt and improvise and move forward."
The Steelers' top-rated defense was porous again, yet they made enough stops to help Pittsburgh (10-5) out of a late-season swoon and move one step closer to the playoffs. They're still thinking beyond just a playoff berth, though.
"With Willie down it's going to take something away from us," said Nate Washington, who caught two touchdown passes. "If we dwell on Willie being down it's going to be that much tougher for us to get to (the Super Bowl), and we don't need anything else making it hard for us."
Isaac Bruce caught a 12-yard touchdown pass for the Rams and moved into third place on the career yards receiving list, moving ahead of James Lofton. Marc Bulger threw three touchdown passes but was intercepted twice, and Ike Taylor's 51-yard return on an overthrown ball on 4th-and-10 with 3:46 to go put the game out of reach.
Wide receiver Torry Holt was caught on camera screaming at coach Scott Linehan after the interception. Holt declined comment after the game.
"It's not a big deal, not to me," Linehan said. "It's something said in the heat of the battle to his coach and it's over as far as I'm concerned."
Bulger and Linehan had been talking about backup Gus Frerotte taking over before Holt started yelling at the coach.
"I honestly don't know what they were arguing about," Bulger said. "My discussion had nothing to do with Torry unless he was really upset I was going out of the game."
Pittsburgh had taken a 10-point lead on a 29-yard field goal by Jeff Reed only seven plays earlier.
The only other highlight for the Rams (3-12) was retiring Marshall Faulk's No. 28 jersey at halftime of the Rams' home finale. Bruce, who passed Marvin Harrison last week on the yardage list, caught seven passes for 87 yards and has 940 career receptions, tied for sixth with Art Monk.
"I hear the names," Bruce said. "Next Sunday night when the season is over for us, I'll go back and I'll just go look at it."
St. Louis finished 1-7 at home and had three games blacked out because it didn't sell out, and in each of the last two weeks there have been nearly as many visitors as home fans in the Edward Jones Dome.
Parker, who has 1,316 yards, limped off the field with about 12 minutes to go in the first quarter. Davenport eased any worries with a game that rivaled his 178-yard effort for the Packers against the Rams, in a 45-17 Monday night victory in 2004. He was filling in for Ahman Green at the time.
"They just executed," Linehan said. "It didn't matter who was in there."
Ben Roethlisberger was 16-for-20 for 261 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions for the Steelers (10-5), who had lost three of five to fall into a tie with the Browns for the AFC North lead. Roethlisberger had his first 200-yard passing effort in five games by halftime, helping to revive a struggling offense.
He hit Santonio Holmes for an 83-yard gain on the Steelers' first drive, helping the Steelers recover from starting at their own 4 after Allen Rossum fumbled on a punt return.
"We felt we could take some shots down the field," Roethlisberger said. "Our receivers, a lot of people don't give them credit, but they're pretty fast and they got down the field well."
The Steelers, 8-8 last season, can clinch the division with a Cleveland loss at Cincinnati on Sunday. They also can clinch a playoff berth if the Titans lose to the Jets.
Davenport entered the game with 349 yards, a 4.9-yard average and three touchdowns as Parker's backup. His best game before Thursday came against the Seahawks when he had 58 yards rushing on seven carries and two touchdowns.
Bulger was 18-for-35 for 208 yards and Steven Jackson had 85 yards on 12 carries for the Rams, who had 316 yards total offense.
Notes: Bulger has 105 touchdown passes, pulling out of a tie for fourth with Kurt Warner for fourth on the Rams' career list. ... Hines Ward had six catches for 59 yards, passing John Stallworth for the Steelers' career lead in yards receiving. He has 8,741, 18 more than Stallworth. ... The Steelers are 15-2 against NFC opponents dating to 2003. This was their first game in St. Louis since 1979. ... The Rams have been outscored 130-40 in the fourth quarter.
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press.