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Smith finds redemption

©Associated Press

December 9, 2002

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Knowing that actions speak louder than words, Steve Smith finally did something to make the Panthers proud of him.

Smith, struggling on and off the field, scored three touchdowns and had a career-high 313 total yards to lead Carolina to a 52-31 victory over the Bengals on Sunday.

His scores earned him hugs and high-fives from his teammates, most of whom were slow to accept him when he returned last week from a suspension for beating up a teammate.

"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."

Rodney Peete went 21-for-29 for a season-high 319 yards -- 4 short of his career high -- and three touchdowns. Smith had five catches for a career-high 144 and Muhsin Muhammad had eight catches for 106 as the Panthers tied Oakland for the most points this season.

The Panthers offense didn't explode until the second half -- Carolina's 16 points in the first were either scored on defense or special teams. A halftime lecture sparked the Panthers to four second-half TDs. 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 Jon Kitna, who threw for two TDs and ran for another, but must now win two of its final games to avoid the franchise's worst record.

"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."

Steve Smith, who has been anything but superb this season, had his biggest day.

An All-Pro kick returner last season, Smith has struggled this season with his extra duties as a regular receiver. Before Sunday, he had scored two TDs -- none on returns -- and had 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 two days and filed charges against Smith.

His apology to his teammates wasn't immediately accepted, even though Smith admitted he is undergoing counseling.

"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 ran past the initial tacklers and streaked down the sideline to give Carolina a 16-7 lead in the second.

He caught a 31-yard TD from Peete in the third to put the Panthers up 23-17.

Smith 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," coach John Fox said.

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