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WR silences naysayers with big day

ST. LOUIS -- Steve Smith was one of the least popular of
Carolina Panthers before Saturday. Not anymore.

Smith caught a third-and-14 pass on the first play of the second
overtime, then outran St. Louis' Jason Sehorn to the end zone to
give the Panthers a 29-23 victory over the Rams and a spot in their
first NFC championship game since 1996.

"I just beat the safety and Jake threw one of those pretty
balls that he does in the last minute, like he always does," Smith
said.

Many Carolina fans have soured on Smith, despite his skills. The
resentment is the result of Smith's rants about his contract, a
fight with a teammate during a film session that led to a one-game
suspension in 2002, and a personal-foul penalty that cost the
Panthers a game earlier this season against Houston.

Despite the baggage, Smith emerged as the team's No. 1 receiver,
catching 88 passes for 1,110 yards and seven touchdowns during the
regular season -- big numbers for a receiver in a run-first offense.
He caught five passes for 135 yards in Carolina's first-round win
over Dallas. Against St. Louis, he caught six passes for 163 yards.

None were bigger than the last one.

The Panthers had already blown a 23-12 late-fourth-quarter lead
and missed a 45-yard field goal in overtime. Now, they faced
third-and-14 at the St. Louis 31.

St. Louis cornerback Travis Fisher lined up against Smith, then
let him go, leaving the coverage to Sehorn. But Delhomme's pass hit
Smith in stride, and the race to the end zone was no contest.

"Steve Smith did a great job for us this year," Carolina coach
John Fox said. "He has been on the receiving end of a lot of big
plays and made an even bigger one today."

Smith was an All-Pro kick returner as a rookie. He pleaded for a
chance at receiver last season and was just so-so. He was angered
when he felt disrespect from management, which refused in-season
negotiations on a contract extension, calling Smith "unproven."

Smith blasted management early this season, only to say the next
day he regretted the comments. Then during a loss to the Texans in
October, he kicked a Houston player, drawing a penalty that set the
stage for a loss.