- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 22, 2006

Mike Holmgren has heard all the praise heaped on Carolina receiver Steve Smith the last two weeks after he dominated the secondaries of the New York Giants and Chicago.

And, in a rarity, all of it was deserved.

“Much has been said about Steve Smith, and it should be,” said Holmgren, Seattle’s coach.

But Smith and the Panthers have one more step to take — today in the NFC Championship game against the Seahawks at Qwest Field.

How Seattle defends Smith and how Carolina creates opportunities for him will be the key story line, particularly with leading rusher DeShaun Foster sidelined with a fractured ankle.

If the Seahawks can limit Smith the way they controlled the Redskins’ Santana Moss for three quarters last week, they have the edge. But if Smith continues his all-world month, the Panthers will be in position for a third consecutive road playoff win.

“I’ve seen him improve over the years, but I’ve never seen him play at this high of a level,” Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers said of Smith, who has 22 catches in this postseason. “He has us on his back, and he’s carrying us. Right now, he has it in his mind that nobody is going to stop him, no matter what.”

Just as valuable on the Seattle offense is running back Shaun Alexander, who is expected to play after sustaining a concussion in the first quarter last week. Alexander was cleared by team doctors early in the week and returned to practice.

“My mom told me a long time ago that running back was a great position, but it’s also the craziest,” Alexander said. “It just comes with the position.”

One team is trying to reach new heights (Seattle), while the other is trying to make history (Carolina).

Seattle, which last week won its first postseason game since 1984, has never been to a Super Bowl.

Carolina, which lost to New England in the title game two years ago, can become the first NFC team to win three consecutive road games to reach the Super Bowl.

The Seahawks (14-3) labored against the Redskins, committing three turnovers. But quarterback Matt Hasselbeck threw for one touchdown and ran for another in Alexander’s absence.

“It wasn’t a get-over-the-hump game to us,” said Hasselbeck, although the boisterous crowd at Qwest Field might have disagreed.

Carolina (13-5) thrashed the New York Giants and battered Chicago’s defense to reach its third conference title game.

Smith and Alexander come into today’s game after having career regular seasons and, for Smith, a dominant postseason.

Smith missed the final 15 games last season after breaking his leg in the opener against Green Bay. He was coming off a career-high 88 catches in 2003 but had to watch as the Panthers started 1-7 and failed to make the playoffs.

This season, a healthy Smith became Jake Delhomme’s favorite target, especially when Muhsin Muhammad departed to Chicago via free agency.

Smith’s response? A league-high 1,563 receiving yards on 103 catches (tied for the NFL lead with Arizona’s Larry Fitzgerald) and 12 touchdowns.

Smith has been even better in the postseason. He had 10 catches for 84 yards and one touchdown (and one rushing touchdown) against the Giants and 12 catches for 218 yards and two scores against Chicago.

“He’s the best offensive player in the league,” Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher said last week. “He just kept making plays. Whenever they needed a play, they would just throw it to him and he would make a play. The guy is awesome.”

Comparing Smith to the Redskins’ Moss, Holmgren said: “There’s a difference in how the teams use them. Moss, while he could catch intermediate balls and stuff like that, he was going downtown a lot. With Steve, they use him maybe even more. He gets more touches, and it’s by design and in a lot of different ways. They move him around from position to position.”

Smith will need to have another huge game because of Foster’s absence. In Foster’s spot is Nick Goings, who has 22 rushes for 97 yards in the playoffs.

Alexander was limited to six carries against the Redskins. By the end of that game, Alexander said, he knew he would be available for today’s game.

Asked whether he was totally healthy, Alexander quipped: “I haven’t been 100 percent since I was 10 years old.”

The offense revolved around Alexander in the regular season — 1,880 rushing yards and an NFL record 28 touchdowns (27 rushing, one receiving.)

“When he takes the ball and goes one way, you have to stay disciplined in the running lanes because there’s no telling where that ball is going to pop out at,” Peppers said. “He can stay the course, or he can break the play off and reverse field. He’s all over the field.”

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