Now it’s off to Seattle for the NFC championship, where the Panthers will have to rely on their playmaker more than ever.
Smith had 12 catches for a career-high 218 yards and two long touchdowns, including a 58-yard scoring reception on the second play from scrimmage, to lead Carolina to a 29-21 victory over the Bears on Sunday.
It sends the fifth-seeded Panthers into their second championship game in three years. But they’ll go without running back DeShaun Foster, who broke his ankle late against the Bears, leaving Smith as their only true offensive threat.
“All we’ve got to do is keep plugging,” Smith said. “Guys got to step it up and I think they will. We will play it by ear after that.”
But with Smith on their side, the Panthers like their chances.
“He is as tough a competitor as you can find at any position,” Carolina coach John Fox said. “He does well home or away.”
Smith carried the Panthers this entire year, his comeback season after missing 15 games in 2004 with a broken leg. He returned better than ever and ended the regular season as the NFL leader with 1,563 yards receiving.
The Bears should have known what to expect out of him—after all, Smith had a career-high 14 catches for 169 yards in their first meeting, a 13-3 Chicago win. The Bears spent all week boasting about that win, which only fired up Smith and his teammates.
“Last time we played them I had 14 (catches) but we didn’t score,” Smith said. “All I heard all week long was what I didn’t do. We were ready for whatever they threw at us.”
He proved it by catching the Bears off guard just 55 seconds into the game.
Smith beat Charles Tillman on the Panthers’ second snap, leaving him face down on the ground as Smith reeled in a long pass from Delhomme. With Mike Brown in front of him waiting to make the tackle, Smith stopped in mid-stride, tiptoed around Brown and into the end zone for a lightning-fast 7-0 lead.
“Defensively we talked about not giving up the big play, trying to keep Steve Smith contained, and we weren’t able to do that starting early,” Bears coach Lovie Smith said.
But after the Bears cut it to 16-14 late in the third quarter, Smith came up big again. Foster had just left the game with a broken ankle and momentum had shifted in Chicago’s favor.
Still, Smith embarrassed the Chicago secondary by blazing his way past Chris Thompson, who was left lying on the field as Smith raced into the end zone for a 39-yard TD that stretched Carolina’s lead to 23-14. His 218 yards receiving ranks fourth all-time in the playoffs; Eric Moulds had 240 yards for Buffalo in a wild-card game at Miami in 1999.
“I saw (Thompson) was covering him—when I saw that I gave him a signal that I wanted to go there,” quarterback Jake Delhomme said. “Steve put on the burners and took off.”
Smith has done it time and time again this year en route to his first All-Pro season.
“I’m just really utilizing my talents,” he said. “They throw me the ball, my job is to catch it. If I don’t catch the ball, they will get somebody in here who will. I’ve got four people at home depending on me to do my job, so I can’t come home with excuses.
“If you lined up my mama out there, I got to catch it over her, too.”
Carolina becomes the third No. 5 seed since 1990 to advance to the championship game. The Panthers did it by letting their defense challenge Chicago quarterback Rex Grossman, who was starting his second game of the season.
Grossman, who missed most of the season with a broken ankle and had attempted just 39 passes heading into the playoffs, was decent once he settled down. He led the Bears on two second-half scoring drives to rally them from a 16-7 halftime deficit.
He was driving the Bears again late in the fourth quarter when they trailed 29-21, but he was intercepted by Ken Lucas—Carolina’s big-money offseason acquisition—with 2:27 to play, then threw incomplete to former Panthers receiver Muhsin Muhammad on fourth-and-1 to seal the win.
“It’s been a crazy year, nothing that I expected to happen, happened,” Grossman said. “I am going to come back prepared physically and mentally to be the best quarterback in the league.
“All I can say is I am going to be ready to go next year, our whole team is. We’re all really mad in there but still hungry.”
The loss spoiled a resurgent season for the storied Bears, who used outstanding defense to return to the playoffs for the first time in four years. Their run included the dominating November win over the Panthers, when the Bears had eight sacks and two interceptions against Delhomme.
Delhomme was much better in this one, improving to 5-1 in the playoffs.
After Chicago made it 23-21 on Jason McKie’s 3-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter, Delhomme remained calm to engineer yet another scoring drive.
He helped put the Bears away with his third touchdown pass of the game—a 1-yarder to Kris Mangum. Kasay missed the point after, but it still gave Carolina the cushion it needed.
Delhomme finished 24-of-33 for 319 yards while cutting down on the mistakes that had plagued him in the first meeting. He threw one interception and was sacked only once.
“When we came a couple months ago, basically I lost the game,” Delhomme said. “It was nice to come back and get on top this time. They’re a good defense, but we stepped up to the challenge.
“This team has been here before. Guys want to make plays. Guys don’t have big eyes in the huddle.”
Kasay, the only remaining member from the Panthers’ inaugural 1995 season, made field goals of 20, 38 and 37 yards. … Without Foster, the Panthers will turn to Nick Goings to run the ball. He finished with 34 yards on 10 carries. … Bernard Berrian led Chicago receivers with a career-high five catches for 68 yards. Muhammad had three for 58. … Grossman went 17-for-41 for 192 yards. … Carolina gave the Bears six first downs on penalties.