BALTIMORE (AP) – To put it bluntly and Jake Delhomme did – Steve Smith is the most valuable non-quarterback on any NFL team.

“Losing him would be like taking Michael Vick from Atlanta or taking Peyton Manning from the Colts,” the Carolina Panthers’ quarterback said after Smith caught eight passes for 189 yards and a backbreaking 72-yard touchdown Sunday in the Carolina Panthers’ 23-21 win over Baltimore.

Delhomme didn’t have to say it, the stats back it up: Carolina is 0-2 in games it has played without Smith, 4-0 in games with him.

Sorry T.O., but this guy was the best receiver in the NFL last season and he’s the best receiver in the NFL this season. He will, in fact, be the best receiver in the league for the foreseeable future now that he has Keyshawn Johnson to take a lot of pressure off him.

Johnson has held up his end of the bargain – his five receptions on Sunday gave him 32 for the season – seven more than ANY Carolina wideout other than Smith had a year ago, when Ricky Proehl and Keary Colbert each had 25. That was 78 fewer than Smith’s league-leading 103.

Smith won’t come close to that number this year.

He probably wouldn’t have approached it even if he had played in the first two games, which he missed with a hamstring injury. Carolina, the preseason favorite to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, lost those two – at home to Atlanta and at Minnesota, the latter in overtime.

They have won the next four with Smith playing well – but not as well as his usual remarkable level. Last week in a 20-12 win over Cleveland, for example, he had at least two drops and couldn’t quite get to a ball over his head that he might normally have reached.

“It was mental, not physical,” he said. “When you have something like a hamstring problem, it’s in your head. I started to feel well last week and I fell great now. One hundred percent.”

His teammates could tell. Drew Carter, who also caught a touchdown pass, said Smith was singing and talking animatedly on the team bus on the way to the game. “I knew he was going to have a big one,” Carter said.

He sure did, with no play bigger than the one he made with 4:15 left in the game.

It came 18 seconds after the Ravens had scored on a fluke 62-yard play – a pass thrown by Kyle Boller, in for the injured Steve McNair, that was deflected at the line of scrimmage went up into the air and right to Mark Clayton, who caught it in stride about 10 yards down the field and raced untouched to the end zone.

No problem.

On the first play from scrimmage, Delhomme dropped back, looked for Keyshawn, and suddenly saw Smith in full stride racing across the middle of the field away from Ed Reed, one of the best safeties in the NFL. The ball hung up, Smith ran under it and outraced Reed to the end zone.

“That wasn’t supposed to be the play, but suddenly I looked up and I saw Steve waving his arms,” Delhomme said. “Once I threw it, I knew it was a touchdown.”

Another thing about Smith – once a bad actor, he now has become close to the anti-T.O.

Yes, Terrell Owens caught three touchdown passes for Dallas on Sunday, which undoubtedly will make all those media types who scream at his every move give him all the air time he craves. But Smith was better Sunday and normally will be better. Best of all, he’s become a good person after being suspended by the Panthers in 2002 after a fight with a teammate in a film room.

Since then, he’s been a model citizen, both on an off the field.

Even a bit humble – in an

era when wide receivers regularly crave air time and print time and Internet time and any time in the spotlight they can find.

“I understand a lot now,” he said Sunday. “I understand that with Keyshawn this season we can do a lot of things that will help all of us. With Key and Drew and Keary Colbert, we can run four wides the way we didn’t last season. If I get the ball, that’s great and it worked for us Sunday.

“If I don’t and we win … .”

He didn’t say it, but the implication is that’s fine, too.

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