The Carolina Panthers have won eight in a row, and Sunday are headed to New Orleans for their most daunting challenge of the season.
For the 9-3 Panthers, the objective is to thrive in the chaos and noise of the Superdome against a seasoned 9-3 Saints team that's 6-0 in that building.
It's in these times that the Panthers lean on All-Pro receiver Steve Smith, who is at his best under pressure, as he was last month when he repeatedly upstaged New England corner Aqib Talib in a 24-20 victory over the Patriots.
The combustible Talib lost his cool early and often, once refusing to let go of the receiver's leg after making a tackle (and drawing a flag for unnecessary roughness) and later shoving him in frustration.
Smith only excels in the pandemonium.
"I feel like the time when I was growing up in the '80s and '90s, with all the gangs and everything, for some people, chaos, they can't function in it," Smith said this week in a phone interview. "I know for a number of years, chaos was really a place of peace for me. It never made me uncomfortable.
"The confusion of a two-minute [drill], the confusion of the crowds and all that stuff, it really doesn't bother me. I wouldn't say I'm desensitized to it. I have the ability to tune it out."
Ricky Proehl, a former NFL receiver who now coaches Panthers wideouts, said it's more than that. Smith is at his best in situations when other players might come unhinged.
"He plays angry," Proehl said. "It's amazing to me how he can catch the ball like he does, focus like he does, playing angry and with a chip on his shoulder. He's playing to prove something every Sunday."
There's a root to that anger. The 5-foot-9 Smith has felt overlooked throughout his football career. He reached a major career milestone last Sunday, passing Hines Ward by a yard to move into 20th on the all-time receiving yardage list with 12,084.
That's more than any other receiver who grew up in Southern California.
"I think I've changed the game as far as to say, you can't use the measurements of how tall a guy is to disqualify him as a wide receiver," Smith said. "I see guys and I look at myself and I say, 'You know what, you can't keep telling me I can't play wideout because I'm not the standard that you set. Why is there a standard set on height, when all you've got to do is run a good route and catch the ball?'"
Smith likes to say he took the "scenic route" from University High to the NFL, playing at Santa Monica City College — where fellow receiver Chad Johnson got more attention from scouts — to the University of Utah, where he suffered a broken neck on a kick return and spent an entire off-season in a halo brace. That's where he met his wife, Angie. They were married during their senior year and now have three children.
"My heart has been hardened by the fact I don't feel l've gotten enough credit," Smith said. "My wife is constantly telling me, 'Don't worry about that, just look where you're at.' So I've been trying to do that a lot more instead of focusing on not getting some of the things I think I deserve."
There's no questioning Smith's dedication to the game. Fred Graves, who recruited him to Utah and coached receivers there, remembers kicking Smith out of practice one day when the high-strung kid wouldn't stop talking and arguing with teammates.
"He had gotten into a little scuffle with one of the players, no fight or anything, just chipping away," said Graves, now receivers coach for the San Diego Chargers. "It was just one of those days for me. I said, 'Get the hell out of here. You're disturbing practice.' He walked down to the end of the field and he was there for a good 30, 40 minutes. I walked up to him and he had his helmet on and he was crying. He told me, 'Football's all I got.'
"That told me about his passion and love for the game. Even though he might feel strongly about something, he would put that aside because that's how much he loved the game. … You hear this stuff about Steve Smith. But he doesn't smoke, doesn't drink, isn't a big partyer. All the trouble that he's had has been competitive, on the field."
Nothing was handed to Smith. He took three buses to get from his home in South L.A. to practice at Santa Monica and back. When he wasn't at school or playing football, he worked at Taco Bell.
"It was who I was; it was how I ate," said Smith, 34, who now is looking into buying a Taco Bell franchise. "The one thing I do know, what I've learned from my folks, is we didn't have a lot. But whatever you desired or wanted, you had to work for."
Smith still rubs some people the wrong way. Not so for Marc Payne. He was his receivers coach at Santa Monica, and will be transfixed in front of the TV for Sunday night's Panthers-Saints game.
"That fire was within him, I think because of his size, being from the streets of L.A., where it's more of a survival tactic," Payne said. "The survival mode was always there, even on the football field. Between that survival mode and his size, it was 'You're going to know that I'm out here, and I'm not going to let you push me around.'
"If he gets upset, you've lit the wrong match."
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