Smith leads Panthers past Falcons

Published 1:34 am Monday, September 29, 2008

By By MIKE CRANSTON, AP Sports Writer
CHARLOTTE — Steve Smith celebrated his first touchdown of the season with an emphatic spike that sent the ball into the stands. His Carolina Panthers teammates then watched as he frantically tried to retrieve the ball from a fan.
Nearly two months after he broke teammate Ken Lucas’ nose with a sucker punch, Smith handed the ball to Lucas on the sideline, perhaps the final chapter of the ugly training-camp incident as the cohesive Panthers celebrated a 24-9 win over the Atlanta Falcons Sunday.
With Smith making big plays again, Delhomme mistake-free, and the defense shutting down the league’s best rushing unit, the Panthers (3-1) made an early statement that they’re contenders in the NFC South despite last year’s miserable 7-9 season and the training-camp ruckus.
Atlanta stuck around early as referee Ed Hochuli found himself in the middle of another controversy. Two weeks after he mistakenly ruled a fumble an incomplete pass that helped Denver rally to beat San Diego, Hochuli flagged Julius Peppers for roughing the passer, wiping out Matt Ryan’s interception that was returned by Richard Marshall for a touchdown.
Hochuli announced Peppers made a helmet-to-helmet hit, but replays appeared to show Peppers hit Ryan with his shoulder first just as he released the ball.
Despite losing starting tackles Jordan Gross (concussion) and Jeff Otah (ankle), Delhomme had enough time to lead a potent passing attack.
Smith, in his second game back after his two-game suspension, caught six passes for 96 yards. Muhsin Muhammad had eight catches for 147 yards and a fourth-quarter touchdown that produced the final margin.
The Panthers secured their 100th win in franchise history with a boost from their defense, too. Michael Turner, who came in as the league’s leading rusher, had only 56 yards on 18 carries. Ryan threw for just 158 yards and was hurt by numerous drops as the Falcons (2-2) remained winless on the road.
Their quick start this year — helped by beating woeful Detroit and Kansas City at home — was derailed on Sunday as the Falcons struggled to move the ball and their young secondary was exposed.
Chris Houston and Brent Grimes struggled to contain Smith and Muhammad, Ryan didn’t throw an interception, but the Falcons managed only three Jason Elam field goals.
Mistakes by Carolina helped the Falcons stay close for a while.
Jason Baker bobbled a good snap and his punt was blocked by John Abraham, leading to Elam’s 44-yard field goal. Elam later missed from 49 yards, but the Panthers had 12 men on the field, and Elam then connected from 44 yards to make it 14-9 at halftime.
But the Falcons wouldn’t score again.
A happy group, too, with the Smith-Lucas incident clearly behind them.
Notes: Otah said X-rays on his right ankle were negative and he hopes to play next week. … Falcons LT Sam Baker (illness) didn’t play. … Panthers K John Kasay’s third-quarter field goal was the 366th of his career, putting him into a tie for ninth all-time with Norm Johnson.