- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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BALTIMORE -- Any doubts about Steve Smith's value to the Panthers were answered in Sunday's strange but satisfying 23-21 victory over the Ravens.
Late in the fourth quarter, quarterback Jake Delhomme was running a play installed in minicamp called "Hunt Street Circle." The play isn't revolutionary. Everyone has it. Run from many formations and personnel packages, "Hunt Street Circle" has two receivers running vertical routes on the outside and one or two receivers running a shallow crossing pattern or a hitch.
Keyshawn Johnson was the intended target, but he was covered by Ravens cornerback Chris McAlister. All of a sudden, Smith, no longer held back by hamstring problems, exploded across the middle and was wide open in the middle of the field. Before the Ravens' fierce pass rush got to him, Delhomme sailed a high duck-like throw that Smith grabbed and raced for a 72-yard touchdown that opened a 23-14 lead.
"A lot of guys were giving me grief on the sidelines saying they were waiting for the ball to come down," Delhomme said.
The wait this season has been for the return of the NFL's top receiver, and two words were apparent Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium: He's back.
Smith caught eight passes for 189 yards and a game-clinching touchdown against the NFL's second-ranked defense. Ravens cornerback Samari Rolle drew the tough assignment of covering him and was beaten for most of those yards.
Smith has been fighting a hamstring problem since the summer. He missed the first two games -- both Panthers losses -- against Atlanta at home and at Minnesota.
Since Smith's return, the Panthers have won four straight and are within a game of the first-place Saints. Although Smith has been playing, he hadn't been himself until this week. Go back a week to a difficult home victory over the Browns. Smith struggled. Depending on how you judge his play, he either dropped two or four passes, and the bad memories of that game lingered until Tuesday.
"Last week really ate at me more than I should have let it," Smith said.
By mid-week, teammates knew Smith was feeling well. He was back to being his old self on the field, calling for the ball all the time. It's funny when you compare players such as Steve Smith, Terrell Owens and Keyshawn Johnson. Owens draws criticism for the way he throws tantrums when he doesn't get the ball. Smith and Johnson also want the ball, but both have learned how to handle things so they don't drive their quarterbacks too crazy.
Smith tells the story of how he nagged Delhomme during the game for more throws like he does in practice.
"I was communicating like I always do, saying, 'Hey, I'm running good, let's go,'" Smith said. "Jake's telling me, 'Hey, shut up, we'll get you the ball. I know you're feeling good.'"
Delhomme couldn't have felt any better seeing Smith running open across the middle of the field with 4:15 left in the fourth quarter waving his hand.
The Ravens-Panthers game was strange. Both teams knew offensive game plans would be tough to execute because both defenses are big and fast up front. As it turned out, each team had three turnovers, and the Ravens had turnover at quarterback when Steve McNair went down with a concussion and neck sprain with 2:04 left in the first quarter.
McNair was taken to a hospital for test. He had an X-ray, CT scan and MRI on his neck. All tests were negatives and he was released from the hospital. He also had an abrasion on the back of his neck, the byproduct of a hard rush by Panthers defensive tackle Kris Jenkins, which set him up for a sack by Chris Draft and Mike Rucker.
Kyle Boller finished the game and didn't do poorly, completing 17 of 31 passes for 226 yards and three touchdowns, But turnovers were going like crazy. Of course, two of Boller's touchdown passes were weird, each going to Mark Clayton after they bounced off the hands of another player.
"Never in my life have I been part of a game where you see those two touchdowns," Delhomme said. "He hit the guys in stride on those tips. Hey, give them a lot of credit. They made some plays. But our defense kept us in it."
But the return of Smith gave Delhomme the playmaker they were missing the first two weeks. The first quarter was a heavyweight fight with both defenses outslugging the offenses with hard hits. The Panthers led, 3-0, after the first quarter when offensive coordinator Dan Henning came up with the adjustment that won the game.
In the second quarter, the Panthers went primarily to a three-receiver offense, inserting the speedy Drew Carter. It forced the Ravens to make a decision on how to cover Smith and Johnson. Instead of using a nickel cornerback -- third cornerback Corey Ivy was out with a kidney injury -- the Ravens stayed in their regular personnel of linebackers, defensive linemen and four defensive backs.
They put Rolle on Smith and McAlister on Johnson and had safeties roll over to couple them. That opened up the offense for Delhomme to throw for 365 yards, 286 in the final three quarters.
"When you look at the situation, we've got two guys who are capable of being No. 1 guys," Johnson said. "That takes a lot of pressure on a defense to make a decision. They put McAlister on me and Samari on him. If you put Samari on Steve, he's going to get open."
Johnson compares his pairing with Smith to Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal when they were with the Lakers. Smith is Kobe, the player who can make the three-point play at the end of the game before the buzzer. Johnson is Shaq.
"I'm old, I'm Shaq," Johnson said jokingly.
Both work well together, but they get along better than the Bryant-Shaq tandem. After six games, Johnson has 32 catches for 419 yards and a 13.1-yard average. Smith has 31 catches for 450 yards and a 14.5-yard average. Each has two touchdowns, and each is on pace for a 1,000-yard season.
"Keyshawn means a lot to the offense," Smith said. "He brings a different element, something we haven't since my good friend Muhsin Muhammad was here. Keyshawn brings a strong player opposing players have to defend when he's out there. Defenses have to watch him because of how physical he is blocking downfield. He makes our young receivers better."
What's amazing is that the Panthers' offense put up 414 yards on 70 plays in Ray Lewis' house.
"Anytime you go on the road against a good football team -- and Baltimore is a good football team -- some funny things happen," Panthers coach John Fox said. "The ball took a couple of bounces and not necessarily our way. But we were able to hang in there and come out on top and on the road, that's a good tribute. We'll take that win. It was a hard-fought game by both teams. Fortunately, we were able to come out on top."
At 4-2, the Panthers are back and so is Steve Smith. The NFL is now warned.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
The Panthers are unbeaten since Steve Smith's return from injury, and that's no coincidence, John Clayton writes.