Carolina Panthers

Back in the win column

Carolina Panthers running back DeShaun Foster, left, hauls in a catch for a touchdown as Atlanta Falcons linebacker Keith Brooking defends.
Carolina Panthers running back DeShaun Foster, left, hauls in a catch for a touchdown as Atlanta Falcons linebacker Keith Brooking defends.

ATLANTA -- Perhaps never before in the history of the NFL has a guy with one catch for 10 yards so thoroughly dominated and changed the direction of an entire game.

Statistically, Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith didn't do that much. Thematically, he changed the course of Sunday's 27-20 win over the Atlanta Falcons, by constantly tormenting his rival, Atlanta cornerback DeAngelo Hall, to the point of distraction.

And the most gratifying part for Smith and the Panthers -- he tormented him by doing nothing at all.

"There have been people through his whole career that tried to push his buttons," Panthers kicker and Smith confidante John Kasay said. "I think there's a mistaken impression he's volatile. But passionate and volatile are two very different things.

"It really doesn't make a lot of sense to me to try to antagonize him, because the way he plays, he plays better with challenges. If that's how you want to do it, let them do it."

After moments of early rage, Smith stayed calm at key points, allowing Hall to become the goat by drawing 67 yards worth of penalties on the Panthers' game-tying 80-yard drive, the point from which the Panthers took over.

"Obviously that's the kind of player he was," Smith said, working hard to keep from breaking into a grin. "I mean, things he was talking about are minute, you know, about I've been to the same Pro Bowls as you, I make more money than you, just immature stuff. That is not why we play. This isn't why I play this game; it ain't about how much money I make or I make more than you. Where I came from, I came from nothing, and you know I play the game hard, I try to be an example for the kids.

"So whatever he has going on, that's a guy that obviously the caliber of organization that the Carolina Panthers are, we don't have those types of guys. So they're lucky to have a key guy like him on their team."

The Falcons seemed comfortably ahead when Hall boiled over, leading 17-10, passing as they needed to against a leaky Panthers defense. But even though Smith hadn't dented the stat sheet, he was about to change the game.

On the first play of the next series, quarterback Jake Delhomme threw deep down the left sideline for Smith. Hall, beaten by a step, had no choice but to grab his rival by his right arm. That was a 37-yard penalty.

"The ball was in the air and I felt like I was out of position," Hall said. "I didn't want to give up the big play, so I pulled him down."

Then on the next play, a run away from their side, Hall drew a 15-yard penalty after he shoved Smith in the head. Hall claimed he was just trying to jam him at the line of scrimmage as per the defensive call, but he jammed him by the facemask.

But the most damning penalty came after Delhomme was sacked on third down. Again, well away from the action, Hall and Smith were jawing at each other when the flags flew again.

Hall said he "had no clue," why he was called for unsportsmanlike conduct, but admitted it changed the game.

"Yeah, I think it did," he said. "It allowed them to stay out there and make a few more plays. It ended up putting the game out of reach."

It did because with the extra yards and extra plays, Delhomme was able to hit tight end Jeff King for the touchdown that made it 17-17, breathing life into a Panthers team that needed it so much.

After that, they were as calm as Smith, who went on to catch his only pass in the fourth quarter from backup David Carr.

Smith took pride in the fact his hands were behind his back as Hall was frothing at the mouth, deepening the divide between what used to be close friends. Smith once had Hall come to his house for dinner when the Falcons were in Charlotte for a game. They met on a Reebok sponsored advertising shoot, and were once close.

But that was before Hall came out blasting last year, saying he was tired of hearing how Smith was a dominant receiver and that he'd put his friendship on hold.

"If I got to put friendships on hold, or whatever, end them, that's cool," Hall said prior to last year's first game, in which Smith didn't play because of a hamstring injury. "This is a business. You best believe, when he's hanging in the air, I will be taking a shot at him. Period. I'm trying to kill people this year. Period."

When asked about their former friendship, Smith shrugged.

"I broke bread with him once, one time," he said. "You know what Bill says, one time shame on you, second time shame on me."

Of Hall's actions changing the game, that's when he began to smile.

"Of course it's a game-turner, go ask their coach if it was a game turner," Smith said. "Hey, I'm just here to play and catch footballs and run the routes I'm supposed to run. A lot of people may make it out to be more than what it is, you know.

"I caught one ball, but we won, so that's all that matters."