"I thought the flag was on him," Hoover said. "They saw it the other way and put on me. I thought I was in the right and he was in the wrong. But that was a referee's job to make that call. He called it to the best of his ability."
Hoover has a reputation for being one of the fieriest players on the field, and center Jeff Mitchell said the fullback was furious over the call.
"Hoover was already on edge, but when they threw that flag, I thought he was going to pop," Mitchell said. "You can barely understand him anyway with his accent, but when he starts screaming, you can barely understand him."
Hoover said he had never before been called for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Steve Smith celebrated his first touchdown in four weeks with another unique celebration -- pretending the football was a baby and changing the diaper and then burping it on his shoulder.
Smith now has 10 touchdowns this season, keeping him on pace for the league lead with Marvin Harrison, who also caught his 10th of the season on Sunday. Smith caught seven passes for 65 yards, but also had two rare drops, including one that would have been good for at least a 35-yard gain and given him his ninth 100-yard game of the season.
The Panthers got a huge game from outside linebacker Will Witherspoon, who did an outstanding job of blanketing tight end Alge Crumpler and not allowing him to become a big factor.
Witherspoon said that was a little bit of redemption after Crumpler caught a combined eight passes for 123 yards last year against the Panthers.
"The last time we faced him, I had a pretty bad day," Witherspoon said. "I guess I had a point to prove to myself that it was not going to be that easy for them. It was not going to be a day of pitch and catch for them."
With help from the offensive line, the Panthers totaled a season-high 142 yards rushing, bettering their previous best of 141 yards versus New Orleans. With 34 attempts, they averaged 4.2 yards per carry against Atlanta. The effort improved Carolina1s average to 94.7 yards rushing per game and marked the team's sixth 100-yard rushing contest this season.
Carolina, which entered the contest tied for first in the NFC and tied for second in the NFL in takeaways, forced two turnovers. Cornerback Ricky Manning Jr. and safety Marlon McCree had interceptions.
Through 12 games, the Panthers have generated 30 turnovers on 13 fumble recoveries and 17 interceptions, and they have a plus-nine turnover margin. Carolina has a 6-0 record when posting a positive turnover margin, a 3-0 mark when being even in turnover margin, and an 0-3 record when having a negative margin this season.
Prior to Sunday, there were only four Panthers on the roster who had beaten the Falcons twice -- Mike Minter, Mike Rucker, John Kasay and Kris Mangum.
"People are going to sit here and lie to you and say it's another game, but this was a big game for us," Mangum said. "This was a playoff game."