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NFL: Panthers’ Smith back to face reeling Vikings

Associated Press
MINNEAPOLIS ó Steve Smith is back and raring to go.
Smith has returned to the Carolina offense eager to start a season that will begin two games late for the standout receiver because of punishment incurred for punching a teammate.
But don’t forget about the trouble he’s caused for Minnesota.
The first time Smith touched the ball in the NFL, as a rookie for the Panthers in 2001, he returned the opening kickoff of the season 93 yards for a touchdown against a Vikings team that, in essence, still hasn’t recovered. Already reeling from offensive tackle Korey Stringer’s tragic death during training camp, they finished 5-11 that year and saw coach Dennis Green get fired near the end.
Eight of Green’s first nine teams made the playoffs, but after an appearance in the NFC championship game following the 2000 season, Minnesota has qualified for the postseason only once. If success doesn’t come over the next three years, this will go down as the worst decade in the franchise’s 48 seasons.
It is, of course, purely coincidental that the Vikings have struggled during the course of Smith’s never-dull career, but he’s done little to help out a fellow NFC competitor. Playing at Minnesota in 2002, he caught five passes for 81 yards and a touchdown. At home three seasons later, Smith famously racked up 201 yards and one score on 11 receptions in a romp by Carolina. Smith highlighted it with his row-the-boat celebration in the end zone designed to mock Vikings cornerback Fred Smoot and his buddies for the bawdy lake cruise scandal the team was mired in that fall.
Only in 2006 did Smith do Minnesota a favor. Problems with his hamstring forced him to sit out when the teams last played. They’ll meet again Sunday for the eighth time, and seventh at the Metrodome.
“So I come back to the game against the team I started playing against,” Smith wrote this week on his Charlotte-based charity Web site, Athletes United for Youth. “I believe it’s for a reason.”
Smith was suspended for the first two games for breaking the nose of cornerback Ken Lucas in a training camp scuffle. His presence was missed in the passing attack, but it didn’t cost Carolina (2-0) in the standings. After fourth-quarter comebacks in their first two victories, by a combined margin of five points, the Panthers are trying to start 3-0 for the first time in five years. That season ended at the Super Bowl.
“Hopefully he will bring what he always brings: someone who has a passion for the game, who wears his heart on his sleeve, and comes to play every play,” quarterback Jake Delhomme said. “He gets guys fired up on this football team.”
The Vikings (0-2) are trying to avoid their first 0-3 start since 2002 and keep Green Bay from getting too far ahead in the NFC North. They’re also changing quarterbacks, from Tarvaris Jackson to Gus Frerotte, with the goal of reviving their once-high hopes for the season.
Smith’s return is not good timing for them.
“You hope that he comes back rusty, but knowing him he’s not going to be rusty,” safety Darren Sharper said. “He’s going to be more than prepared to come back to a team that’s 2-0. They’ll come in here hot and confident because they’re getting their best receiver back. It’s going to be a tough challenge for us, but we’re looking forward to it.”
Confident, Carolina is.

In other games today, Houston is at Tennessee; Oakland at Buffalo; Dallas at Green Bay; Kansas City at Atlanta; Tampa Bay at Chicago; Arizona at Washington; Miami at New England; Cincinnati at the New York Giants; St. Louis at Seattle; Detroit at San Francisco; New Orleans at Denver; Cleveland at Baltimore; Jacksonville at Indianapolis; and Pittsburgh at Philadelphia.
The New York Jets are at San Diego on Monday night.

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