The Bears should have known what to expect out of him -- after all, Smith had a career-high 14 catches for 169 yards in their first meeting, a 13-3 Chicago win. The Bears spent all week boasting about that win, which only fired up Smith and his teammates.
"Last time we played them I had 14 [catches] but we didn't score," Smith said. "All I heard all week long was what I didn't do. We were ready for whatever they threw at us."
He proved it by catching the Bears off guard just 55 seconds into the game.
Smith beat Charles Tillman on the Panthers' second snap, leaving him face down on the ground as Smith reeled in a long pass from Delhomme. With Mike Brown in front of him waiting to make the tackle, Smith stopped in mid-stride, tiptoed around Brown and into the end zone for a lightning-fast 7-0 lead.
"Defensively we talked about not giving up the big play, trying to keep Steve Smith contained, and we weren't able to do that starting early," Bears coach Lovie Smith said.
Smith later caught a jump ball between Tillman and Chris Harris at the Chicago 2 for a 46-yard gain. Three plays later, John Kasay made a 20-yard field goal to give Carolina a 10-0 lead.
But after the Bears cut it to 16-14 late in the third quarter, Smith came up big again. Foster had just left the game with a broken ankle and momentum had shifted in Chicago's favor.
Still, Smith embarrassed the Chicago secondary by blazing his way past Chris Thompson, who was left lying on the field as Smith raced into the end zone for a 39-yard TD that stretched Carolina's lead to 23-14. His 218 yards receiving ranks fourth all-time in the playoffs; Eric Moulds had 240 yards for Buffalo in a wild-card game at Miami in 1999.
"I saw [Thompson] was covering him -- when I saw that I gave him a signal that I wanted to go there," quarterback Jake Delhomme said. "Steve put on the burners and took off."
Smith has done it time and time again this year en route to his first All-Pro season.
"I'm just really utilizing my talents," he said. "They throw me the ball, my job is to catch it. If I don't catch the ball, they will get somebody in here who will. I've got four people at home depending on me to do my job, so I can't come home with excuses.
"If you lined up my mama out there, I got to catch it over her, too."
Carolina becomes the third No. 5 seed since 1990 to advance to the championship game. The Panthers did it by letting their defense challenge Chicago quarterback Rex Grossman, who was starting his second game of the season.
Grossman, who missed most of the season with a broken ankle and had attempted just 39 passes heading into the playoffs, was decent once he settled down. He led the Bears on two second-half scoring drives to rally them from a 16-7 halftime deficit.
He was driving the Bears again late in the fourth quarter when they trailed 29-21, but he was intercepted by Ken Lucas -- Carolina's big-money offseason acquisition -- with 2:27 to play, then threw incomplete to former Panthers receiver Muhsin Muhammad on fourth-and-1 to seal the win.
"It's been a crazy year, nothing that I expected to happen, happened," Grossman said. "I am going to come back prepared physically and mentally to be the best quarterback in the league.
"All I can say is I am going to be ready to go next year, our whole team is. We're all really mad in there but still hungry."