CHARLOTTE, N.C.- Steve Smith celebrated his first touchdown of the season with an emphatic spike that sent the ball into the stands. His Carolina Panthers teammates then watched as he frantically tried to retrieve the ball from a fan.
"I was trying to tell him, ‘Hey, don't, just give it him,'" Jake Delhomme said. "And he said, ‘No, I need to do something with it."'
Nearly two months after he broke teammate Ken Lucas' nose with a sucker punch, Smith handed the ball to Lucas on the sideline, perhaps the final chapter of the ugly training-camp incident as the cohesive Panthers celebrated a 24-9 win over the Atlanta Falcons Sunday.
"I was going to congratulate him on the touchdown and he said, ‘This is for you,'" Lucas said. "He took the high road and that showed a lot about him as a person."
With Smith making big plays again, Delhomme mistake-free, and the defense shutting down the league's best rushing unit, the Panthers (3-1) made an early statement that they're contenders in the NFC South despite last year's miserable 7-9 season and the training-camp ruckus.
"Since Day 1, since the moment I forgave him, he has done everything that a man could ever do for forgiveness," Lucas said of Smith, who did not speak to reporters. "My hat is off to him. Him and I, the adversity that we had at first has created a friendship. We're friends."
Atlanta stuck around early as referee Ed Hochuli found himself in the middle of a controversy. Two weeks after he mistakenly ruled a fumble an incomplete pass that helped Denver rally to beat San Diego, Hochuli flagged Julius Peppers for roughing the passer, wiping out Matt Ryan's interception that was returned by Richard Marshall for a touchdown.
Hochuli announced Peppers made a helmet-to-helmet hit, but replays appeared to show Peppers hit Ryan with his shoulder first just as he released the ball.
"I threw my shoulder into him, but I guess my helmet (hit his)," Pepper said.
Despite losing starting tackles Jordan Gross (concussion) and Jeff Otah (ankle), Delhomme had enough time to lead a potent passing attack.
Smith, in his second game back after his two-game suspension, caught six passes for 96 yards. Muhsin Muhammad had eight catches for 147 yards and a fourth-quarter touchdown that produced the final margin.
"Smitty is a heck of a talent man, and you know it's just great to be able to play with him," said Muhammad, who set a team record with his 45th touchdown catch. I'm the co-host and I'm fine with that."
The Panthers secured their 100th win in franchise history with a boost from their defense, too. Michael Turner, who came in as the league's leading rusher, had only 56 yards on 18 carries. Ryan threw for just 158 yards and was hurt by numerous drops as the Falcons (2-2) remained winless on the road.
"It's a process that this football team is going through," said coach Mike Smith, who inherited last season's 4-12 mess that included the Michael Vick saga and coach Bobby Petrino's abrupt resignation. "We finished the first quarter and we're 2-2. We've got to feel good about that."
Their quick start this year - helped by beating woeful Detroit and Kansas City at home - was derailed on Sunday as the Falcons struggled to move the ball and their young secondary was exposed.
Chris Houston and Brent Grimes struggled to contain Smith and Muhammad, Ryan didn't throw an interception, but the Falcons managed only three Jason Elam field goals.
"We were trying out there, but they just made plays," Grimes said. "We'll learn from it and get better."
Mistakes by Carolina helped the Falcons stay close for a while.
Jason Baker bobbled a good snap and his punt was blocked by John Abraham, leading to Elam's 44-yard field goal. Elam later missed from 49 yards, but the Panthers had 12 men on the field, and Elam then connected from 44 yards to make it 14-9 at halftime.
But the Falcons wouldn't score again.
"Defensive line, we played great together today," said Peppers, who had a sack and knocked down two passes. "We had pressure, we shut down the run, and we played well as a group."
A happy group, too, with the Smith-Lucas incident clearly behind them.
"I really don't regret it happening, because it created a friendship that was nonexistent," Lucas said. "It also brought this team closer."