CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -Steve Smith had just broken two tackles, tiptoed down the sideline and dove into the end zone for yet another spectacular touchdown to add to his hefty collection. But when he turned around, none of his Carolina Panthers teammates were there to celebrate with him.
Even they had doubts his latest acrobatic play would stand up to a replay review. Yet Smith proved everybody wrong again Sunday, leaving the Panthers 6-2, alone the atop the NFC South and thrilled they've overcome Smith's potential season-destroying sucker-punch in training camp.
``He's done a lot of remarkable things, I know, in my tenure,'' coach John Fox said Monday. ``He's extremely competitive and he's very gifted. He comes to play.''
rst two for breaking teammate Ken Lucas' nose.
But while the three-time Pro Bowl pick has made the sensational the norm in his eight-year career, Sunday's game-changing TD was in a different class.
With Jake Delhomme and Kurt Warner locked in a quarterbacks shootout, Delhomme and the Panthers trailed 23-17 and faced third-and-2 from their 35 late in the third quarter. After a play fake, Delhomme rifled a pass to the Arizona sideline that Smith grabbed at the Carolina 47.
Cardinals cornerback Roderick Hood failed to wrap up Smith, then safety Antrel Rolle came over to help, but Smith spun away. Yet it appeared with Smith leaning over so much that he nearly fell that his right foot hit the sideline.
``I knew I was close to the sideline, that's why I swung one leg around,'' Smith said.
There was nothing close about it, according to Cardinals players and coaches inches away from the play.
``It looked to me from where I saw it, but our DB coach Teryl Austin was standing right there and he immediately said he stepped out of bounds,'' coach Ken Whisenhunt said. ``He was standing right there looking at it.''
As Smith regained his balance and raced down the sideline, players on Arizona's sideline were jumping and yelling as the officials let the play continue. That's what caught Delhomme's attention, and it was why he didn't run to greet Smith in the end zone.
n so I didn't know if he was in or not,'' Delhomme said. ``That sideline was so convinced that he was out.''
So as Smith was trying to find somebody to chest bump, Whisenhunt wasted no time throwing the red challenge flag.
``Even before we got a picture of it, we were ready to challenge it,'' Whisenhunt said.
The first play shown by Fox Sports appeared to show Smith's right foot was clearly out of bounds. When that angle was shown on the video board, the Cardinals were so confident the play would be overturned their defense came back on the field, while Carolina's extra-point team huddled 50 yards away near the goal line.
But then another angle was shown, and it appeared maybe Smith somehow kept his right heel from touching the ground. Another angle showed a divot mark made with his toe that was in bounds.
``That's a typical Steve play,'' Delhomme said. ``Instead of a heel touching, it stayed up. You grin and laugh and you're glad he's on our side.''
One of the flaws of instant replay is some games have fewer cameras than others, and there was no angle looking directly down the sideline.
With no clear evidence, referee Walt Coleman announced the touchdown would stand. As Whisenhunt looked on in disbelief, Smith got to celebrate again, this time on the sideline with his jubilant teammates as John Kasay kicked the extra point that put Carolina ahead to stay.
as in the air to me and it never touched anything,'' Fox said after watching the film. ``The officials concurred. Again, you're not going to catch every little detail, even with replay. But it was a great play on his part.''
Having long ago put to rest any lingering hard feelings from the Smith-Lucas incident, the Panthers enter their bye week playing like one of the top teams in the NFC - and catching the breaks necessary to have a great season as No. 89 keeps making jaw-dropping plays.
``I always apply a lot of pressure to myself,'' Smith said. ``It's outstanding to have guys on the team that we can count on. We count on each other.''

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