Big plays lead Panthers over Bengals


CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -- Knowing that actions speak louder than
words, Steve Smith finally did something to make the Carolina Panthers proud of him again.

Question on the Bengals: Honestly, are most of them thinking that the season can't end soon enough?
The U-Hauls are probably backed up to the gates this week as guys look to get out of town. QB Jon Kitna and FB Lorenzo Neal don't appear to be quitting, but it seems like the rest of the Bengals are packing it in. It's tough to come close and lose again and again. With each new loss, the Bengals are looking more forward to the offseason.

Question on the Panthers: What's been the difference with their offense the past two weeks?
Rodney Peete. He brings a certain maturity to the Panthers. He knows where to put the ball and he limits his mistakes. Since he's returned from injury, the Panthers have been more effective on offense. They're going to take what you give them -- and today they took a whole lot.

Eric Allen played cornerback for 14 NFL seasons with the Eagles, Saints and Raiders.

Smith, struggling on and off the field in a disappointing second
season, scored three touchdowns -- two on punt returns -- and had a
career-high 313 total yards to lead the Carolina Panthers to a
52-31 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday.

His scores earned him hugs and high-fives from his teammates,
most of whom were slow to accept him when he returned last week
from a suspension for beating up a teammate.

"I don't have to show the team anything -- they showed me that
they trust me by letting me play,'' Smith said. "I'm just trying
to be a pro, to remember where I came from. I've got to remember
where I am and how fortunate I am to be in the NFL.

"I have to practice well and be the new Steve.''

Carolina (5-8) won its second straight game, set a franchise
record for points scored, scored the most points against the
Bengals in team history, had a season-high 401 total yards and
improved to 3-0 this season against AFC North teams.

Rodney Peete went 21-for-29 for a season-high 319 yards -- 4
yards short of his career-high -- and three touchdowns. Smith had
five catches for a career-high 144 yards and Muhsin Muhammad had
eight catches for 106 yards as the Panthers tied Oakland for
scoring the most points in the NFL this season.

But their offense didn't explode until the second half --
Carolina's 16 points in the first half were either scored by its
defense or special teams. A stern halftime lecture sparked the
Panthers to four second-half touchdowns. There could have been a
fifth but Carolina took a knee at the 1-yard line.

"Coach really challenged us at halftime, and we needed to be
challenged,'' said tight end Wesley Walls, who had a 2-yard TD
catch. "So we came out in the second half rolling and it just

Cincinnati (1-12) got a solid outing from quarterback Jon Kitna,
who threw for two touchdowns and ran for another, but must now win
two of its final three games to avoid notching the worst record in
franchise history.

"We're not playing good football, we do bad things,'' defensive
end Justin Smith said. "We've just got to regroup and see what we
can do next year.''

Smith, who has been anything but superb this season, had his
biggest day.

An All-Pro kick returner as a rookie last season, Smith has
struggled this year with his extra duties as a regular receiver.
Before Sunday, he had scored just two touchdowns -- none on returns
-- and had just one 100-yard receiving game.

He's also had problems off the field, receiving a one-game
suspension last month for beating up teammate Anthony Bright during
a film session -- an assault that was so bad, Bright was
hospitalized for two days and filed charges against Smith.

His apology to his teammates wasn't immediately accepted, even
though Smith admitted he is undergoing counseling, and his
punishment continued when he caught just one pass in last week's
win over Cleveland.

"Steve has come a long way, he's realized he made a mistake and
he's humbled,'' Muhammad said. "Most of his energy is now focused
on the field, and that's where it needs to be. We know he has
potential, but that's not enough right now.

"He has to continue to come in here and play well and be a guy
in the locker room that everyone wants to be around.''

Smith's first score came on a 61-yard return, when he juked his
way past the initial tacklers and streaked down the sideline for
the TD to give Carolina a 16-7 lead in the second quarter.

He caught a 31-yard touchdown pass from Peete in the third
quarter to put the Panthers up 23-17.

Smith later put the game out of reach when he scored on an
87-yard punt return, giving the Panthers a 37-24 lead and breaking
Winslow Oliver's team record 84-yard return in 1996.

"He's refocused his life, and I think it showed today in his
play both as a receiver and as a return man,'' Fox said. "He made
a mistake, he paid the price for the mistake, he's dealt with it
and his teammates have dealt with it.''

Game notes
Cincinnati coach Dick LeBeau said Travis Dorsch, who had a
10-yard punt, will not get another chance next week. ... Corey Dillon fumbled Kitna's handoff in the end zone for a Carolina
touchdown. He was later tackled in the end zone for a safety. ...
Dee Brown fumbled on the goal line to abort a Carolina scoring
opportunity. ... Al Wallace, making his first start in place of
suspended defensive end Julius Peppers, recovered Dillon's fumble
for a touchdown, had one tackle and one pass deflection.