Smith leads Panthers past Broncos |

Smith leads Panthers past Broncos

The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado
Chuck Burton/AP Denver's Jay Cutler gets to know Carolina's Charles Johnson during the fourth quarter Sunday in Charlotte, N.C.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. ” When Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson found out last week he needed a heart trans plant, coach John Fox asked his boss what the players could do to help.

The answer: They’re already doing it.

Fox relayed the message, and his players continued their good work Sunday ” in front of their ailing owner ” in a 30-10 win over the Denver Broncos.

As he awaits a donor heart, Richardson checked out of the hospital, sat in his customary seat in his end zone suite, and watched the Panthers (11-3) clinch at least a tie for the NFC South title, improve to 8-0 at home and prevent the Broncos (8-6) from clinching the AFC West.

“That’s what we want to do for him: keep winning games and try to bring him something special,” defensive end Julius Peppers said.

Players didn’t know Richardson ” the first ex-NFL player to own a team since George Halas ” was at the game until he was shown on the video board in the second half.

“I was one of the people on the sidelines clapping because I didn’t know he was here,” running back DeAngelo Williams said. “I saw his blanket kind of falling down, and his wife pulled it up. That was kind of cute. To see him up there, after what he’s been through, it just shows his dedication to the team. He’s not only an owner ” he’s a friend and he’s family.”

Richardson watched the emerging Williams have another big day, including a cut back 56-yard touchdown run on Carolina’s first possession of the second half to put it away. Steve Smith torched Broncos rookie cornerback Josh Barrett, catching nine passes for 165 yards and a touchdown, and the Panthers’ defense shut down Jay Cutler and the league’s second-ranked offense.

“They pressured us a little bit,” said Cutler, who threw for 172 yards and one touchdown and was fortunate to have only one interception. “We weren’t able to run the ball as well as we wanted to.”

Tatum Bell, who was selling cell phones last month, started at tailback for the banged-up Broncos and had 43 yards on seven carries. P. J. Pope rushed for 51 yards and caught his first career touch down on Denver’s first possession, but a once promising day turned sour.

Denver went through pregame warmups perhaps thinking it would clinch the AFC West midway through the first quarter, when Kansas City finished off a win over San Diego in an early game. Instead, the Chiefs blew a 21- 3 third quarter lead. The Chargers got the win ning TD as Cutler was shredding Carolina’s secondary on the opening drive that ended with his 7-yard pass Pope.

“I was aware of what happened,” Denver coach Mike Shanahan said. “Our team wasn’t.”

The Broncos will get another chance to clinch the division next week at home against Buffalo.

“We need to win and take care of busi ness as fast as possible,” said cornerback Dre’ Bly. “Time is running out. We don’t want to go into the last game with the Chargers.”

With Champ Bailey (groin) and Marlon McCree (ankle) out, Denver’s thin sec­ondary couldn’t keep up with Smith.

He caught three passes for 66 yards on Carolina’s first possession, ending with a 15-yard catch-and-run TD off a big block from fellow receiver Muhsin Muham­mad.

The Panthers took their first lead on Jonathan Stewart’s 2-yard run midway through the second quarter ” with Smith’s 38-yard grab the key play of the drive ” then got a gift to take a 20-10 halftime lead.

Instead of running out the clock on second-and-10 from its own 18 in the closing seconds, Denver called a timeout. Selvin Young fumbled on the next play, Carolina’s Tyler Brayton recovered, and John Kasay kicked a 44-yard field goal as time expired.

Williams’ long TD run was the biggest play for Carolina’s two-headed running game. While Williams and Stewart (140 combined yards) weren’t as impressive as six days earlier when they rushed for 301 yards and four touchdowns against Tampa Bay, it was enough to avoid any letdown a week before the Panthers visit the New York Giants with perhaps the No. 1 seed in the NFC on the line.

That would be another way to honor their owner.

“I thought it was awesome. Just to see him up there in his box and know that he was here to enjoy another undefeated season,” Muhammad said. “My first year as a rookie we went undefeated at home in ‘ 96 and you know that was a special year, went to the NFC championship game. Now to be able to have him watch ing again and here to see that undefeated season at home again, that’s a real special moment.”

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