Smith, struggling on and off the field in a disappointing second season, scored three touchdowns -- two on punt returns -- and had a career-high 313 total yards to lead the Panthers to a 52-31 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday.
|Steve Smith has had his problems on and off the field, but scores three TDs Sunday.(AP)|
"I don't have to show the team anything -- they showed me that they trust me by letting me play," Smith said. "I'm just trying to be a pro, to remember where I came from. I've got to remember where I am and how fortunate I am to be in the NFL.
"I have to practice well and be the new Steve."
Carolina (5-8) won its second consecutive game, set a franchise record for points scored, scored the most points against the Bengals in team history, had a season-high 401 total yards and improved to 3-0 this season against AFC North teams.
Rodney Peete went 21-for-29 for a season-high 319 yards -- 4 yards short of his career-high -- and three touchdowns. Smith had five catches for a career-high 144 yards and Muhsin Muhammad had eight catches for 106 yards as the Panthers tied Oakland for scoring the most points in the NFL this season.
But their offense didn't explode until the second half -- Carolina's 16 points in the first half were either scored by its defense or special teams. A stern halftime lecture sparked the Panthers to four second-half touchdowns. There could have been a fifth but Carolina took a knee at the 1-yard line.
"Coach really challenged us at halftime, and we needed to be challenged," said tight end Wesley Walls , who had a 2-yard TD catch. "So we came out in the second half rolling and it just snowballed."
Cincinnati (1-12) got a solid outing from quarterback Jon Kitna , who threw for two touchdowns and ran for another, but must now win two of its final three games to avoid notching the worst record in franchise history.
"We're not playing good football, we do bad things," defensive end Justin Smith said. "We've just got to regroup and see what we can do next year."
Smith, who has been anything but superb this season, had his biggest day.
An All-Pro kick returner as a rookie last season, Smith has struggled this year with his extra duties as a regular receiver. Before Sunday, he had scored just two touchdowns -- none on returns -- and had just one 100-yard receiving game.
He's also had problems off the field, receiving a one-game suspension last month for beating up teammate Anthony Bright during a film session -- an assault that was so bad, Bright was hospitalized for two days and filed charges against Smith.
His apology to his teammates wasn't immediately accepted, even though Smith admitted he is undergoing counseling, and his punishment continued when he caught just one pass in last week's victory over Cleveland.
"Steve has come a long way, he's realized he made a mistake and he's humbled," Muhammad said. "Most of his energy is now focused on the field, and that's where it needs to be. We know he has potential, but that's not enough right now.
"He has to continue to come in here and play well and be a guy in the locker room that everyone wants to be around."
Smith's first score came on a 61-yard return, when he juked his way past the initial tacklers and streaked down the sideline for the TD to give Carolina a 16-7 lead in the second quarter.
He caught a 31-yard touchdown pass from Peete in the third quarter to put the Panthers up 23-17.
Smith later put the game out of reach when he scored on an 87-yard punt return, giving the Panthers a 37-24 lead and breaking Winslow Oliver's team record 84-yard return in 1996.
"He's refocused his life, and I think it showed today in his play both as a receiver and as a return man," Fox said. "He made a mistake, he paid the price for the mistake, he's dealt with it and his teammates have dealt with it."
- Cincinnati coach Dick LeBeau said Travis Dorsch, who had a 10-yard punt, will not get another chance next week.
- Corey Dillon fumbled Kitna's handoff in the end zone for a Carolina touchdown. He was later tackled in the end zone for a safety.
- Dee Brown fumbled on the goal line to abort a Carolina scoring opportunity.
- Al Wallace, making his first start in place of suspended defensive end Julius Peppers, recovered Dillon's fumble for a touchdown, had one tackle and one pass deflection.
The Associated Press News Service
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