NFL Preview; Carolina at Cincinnati

The Carolina Panthers always knew receiver Steve Smith was crucial to their success. Their first six games have provided them with a stark reminder of just how important he is.

The Panthers (4-2) look to improve to 5-0 since Smith returned from a hamstring injury when they visit the Cincinnati Bengals (3-2) on Sunday.

Online Sports Book has Cincinnati listed as -3 point spread favorites for Sunday's game. The over/under line has been set at 44 total points. Bodog looks for this matchup to be one of the most bet NFL games this week.

With Smith sidelined during the first two weeks, Carolina managed 19 total points in dropping both games. The All-Pro receiver returned for Week 3, and his impact was immediate, catching seven passes for 112 yards as the Panthers defeated Tampa Bay 26-24.

Since Smith's return, Carolina has reached the 20-point mark in all four games. He has 31 receptions for 450 yards and two touchdowns.

``When Steve came back, certainly it helped,'' said Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme, who has thrown for 976 yards and six touchdowns with Smith in the lineup. ``In my opinion, it's like taking Michael Vick away from Atlanta, like taking Peyton (Manning) away from the Colts.''

Carolina's top receiving target was instrumental last week in helping Delhomme throw for a career-high 365 yards and two TDs as the Panthers topped Baltimore 23-21. Smith had 189 yards receiving and a 72-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter as the Panthers stayed one game behind New Orleans for first place in the NFC South.

Smith's 112.5-yard average is tops in the NFL.

``Until you are actually out there doing it, you don't get in that condition,'' Carolina coach John Fox said, noting Smith's progress since his return. ``He's gotten better each week.''

What didn't get better for Fox's team last week was its rushing attack. The Panthers did little on the ground against the tough Ravens defense, running for only 58 yards. Carolina ran for more than 100 yards in each of the first three games of its win streak.

The Panthers have a good chance to put the ineffective rushing performance behind them against the Bengals, who are allowing 140.4 yards per game on the ground. Cincinnati struggled to defend the run again last week, giving up 140 yards in a 14-13 loss to Tampa Bay, the team's second straight.

That came one game after New England ran for 236 yards in a 38-13 win over the Bengals.

Making matters worse for the Bengals is that their offense hasn't been able to compensate for the defense's problems. Chad Johnson led the AFC with 1,432 receiving yards last season, but has yet to record a 100-yard game or catch more than six passes in a contest this year.

He has just one touchdown catch, on an eight-yard pass Sept. 17 against the Browns.

``Stuff is not going the same way it did last year, to where I can come out and be bold,'' Johnson said. ``We're not playing bold. We're not playing aggressive. So I can't be aggressive. I've got to feel it.

``I can't come up and say, 'Man, we're going to go out and torch these guys,' and we go 75 plays in the game and have one explosive play. We're just not the aggressor right now.''

Cincinnati is also struggling to run the ball, ranking 22nd in the league with 97.4 yards per game. Rudi Johnson has accounted for 405 of Cincinnati's 487 rushing yards, but was held to 52 on 17 carries against the Buccaneers.

The fifth-year back ran for more than 1,400 yards in each of the last two seasons.

``We're not throwing the ball like we did last year. We're not running the ball like we did last year,'' said Bengals receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh, who had season highs with 10 catches and 102 yards along with a touchdown last week. ``If you can't do at least one or the other, we're in trouble.''

Not helping matters is the loss of left tackle Levi Jones, who learned he likely will need arthroscopic knee surgery, depriving the Bengals of the player who protects quarterback Carson Palmer's blind side for several weeks. Palmer is continuing to work to regain his rhythm after rehabilitating his knee following surgery.

Cincinnati is already without center Rich Braham, who suffered a significant knee injury during the second game of the season.

Rookie Andrew Whitworth is expected to fill in for Jones.

Cincinnati, which fell out of first place and behind the Ravens for the AFC North lead with their second straight defeat, has lost both matchups with Carolina. The teams haven't met since Dec. 8, 2002, when the Panthers won 52-31.

By: Michael Cash - - Email Us

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