ST. LOUIS — Steve Smith conjured echoes of the 2003 playoffs with another long touchdown catch that propelled the Carolina Panthers and quieted the same St. Louis crowd.
Smith outsprinted Tye Hill on a 68-yard catch for the go-ahead touchdown 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. “You can’t give a testimony without going through a test.”
The first fumble negated a scoring opportunity, with Julius Peppers recovering at the Carolina 26. The fumble led to Smith’s TD catch.
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-yard line.
Jackson had 58 yards on 18 carries and one catch for 3 yards, his worst statistical outing and first below 100 yards since he totaled 57 yards rushing and receiving last Nov. 19 in a 15-0 loss at Carolina. He was held below 100 yards in only one other game last year.
“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. “We’ll know more tomorrow.”
Smith had seven catches for 118 yards while schooling Hill, the Rams’ first-round pick last year. During the buildup to the game, he accused Hill of bragging to Panthers backup running back DeAngelo Williams about “shutting me 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.
“You know, people who talk really don’t have much to talk about.”
Torry Holt caught a short touchdown pass and Dante Hall had an 84-yard kickoff return to set up one of two field goals by Jeff Wilkins for the Rams. St. Louis got no touchdowns from the first-string offense in the preseason and those woes carried over to the opener.
Jake Delhomme hit his first seven passes and finished 18-for-27 for 201 yards and three touchdowns and no interceptions for Carolina. He also 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 last year but added first-round pick Adam Carriker.
The Panthers overcame two lost fumbles, one each by Williams and Foster.
Each team scored on its opening possession. Delhomme was 6-for-6 for 35 yards and the Panthers also had a 29-yard pass interference call on a play involving Smith in a drive capped by Carter’s 10-yard scoring catch.
Hall, who replaced the injured Drew Bennett as the Rams’ third wide receiver, had two key catches on the Rams’ opening possession capped by a 3-yard toss from Marc Bulger to Holt. Bulger, who signed a six-year, $60 million contract extension during training camp, had an off day, going 22-for-42 for 167 yards and an interception.