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Show Stopper

ST. LOUIS | Steve Smith conjured echoes of the 2003 playoffs with another long touchdown catch that propelled the Carolina Panthers past the same St. Louis Rams.

Smith outsprinted Tye Hill on a 68-yard catch for the go-ahead play in Carolina's 27-13 opening victory on Sunday. As Smith eased into the end zone, Hill could only watch as he stumbled and then slid on his stomach for several yards.

"Hey, I make plays," Smith said. "That's what I'm here to do."

The play was reminiscent of Smith's 69-yard shocker in the second overtime of the 2003 divisional playoff game between the teams that left Rams safety Jason Sehorn grasping only air and sent Carolina toward its first Super Bowl appearance.

The Rams' decision to give feature back Steven Jackson the preseason off backfired. Jackson lost two fumbles on consecutive carries in the third quarter, equaling his season total from last year.

"Tests come, tests go, I've just got to be able to withstand the storm," Jackson said.

The first fumble negated a scoring opportunity, with Julius Peppers recovering at the Carolina 26. The Rams' defense saved Jackson on the second fumble, with hits by Brandon Chillar and Corey Chavous stripping DeShaun Foster at the St. Louis 3.

Jackson had 58 yards on 18 carries and one catch for 3 yards, his worst outing and first below 100 yards since he totaled 57 yards rushing and receiving last Nov. 19 in a 15-0 loss at Carolina.

"No matter what, we don't let the ball get run on us," Panthers defensive end Mike Rucker said. "Once you make them one-dimensional, then they have to go up in the air."

St. Louis also lost seven-time Pro Bowl offensive tackle Orlando Pace, who injured his shoulder late in the first half and did not return. Pace missed half of last season with a torn triceps and coach Scott Linehan said an MRI exam was scheduled for Monday.

"It's a pretty bad sprain," Linehan said.

During the buildup to the game, Smith accused Hill of bragging to Panthers backup running back DeAngelo Williams about "shutting" him down.

The catch by the Panthers' three-time Pro Bowl wide receiver made it 14-13 midway through the third quarter.

"I'm not going to stoop to that level, all I'm going to do is congratulate my adversaries and then my teammates," Smith said.

Jake Delhomme hit his first seven passes and finished 18-for-27 for 201 yards and three touchdowns and no interceptions for Carolina. He hit Drew Carter for scores of 10 and 9 yards, the second TD for a 24-13 lead in the fourth quarter.

The Panthers totaled 186 yards rushing, 94 by Foster and 62 by Williams, against a unit that ranked 31st in the NFL against the run.