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Can Panthers’ Steve Smith be ready for playoffs? ‘Don’t bet against him,’ Rivera says

Carolina Panthers receiver Steve Smith continues to “ice up” in the hopes of being ready for the NFL playoffs.

Smith, who has a sprained ligament in his left knee, is one of three starters out for Sunday’s game at Atlanta. Running back Jonathan Stewart, who has a partially torn knee ligament, and defensive tackle Colin Cole (strained calf) also are out.

But Panthers coach Ron Rivera seemed optimistic that Smith in particular would be available next week if the Panthers had to play a first-round game as a wild card.

“I’d like to believe so, knowing who he is,” Rivera said Friday. “Don’t bet against him.”

All of the injured players would be better served if the Panthers (11-4) win Sunday to clinch the NFC South and a first-round bye. Smith has a sprained posterior cruciate ligament, an injury that usually takes two to three weeks to heal.

Smith, who coined a catchphrase when he urged Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib to “ice up, son” after a Monday night game in November, has been spending long days at Bank of America Stadium rehabbing the knee.

“Steve’s actually improved a lot,” Rivera said. “In Steve’s way, he basically said, ‘If I had to, I’d play this weekend.’ He probably couldn’t, but he’d try.”

With Smith sidelined, the Panthers will use a receiving rotation of Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon, who caught the game-winning touchdown pass last week against New Orleans.

Marvin McNutt, the former Iowa player who was signed in October, will be active for the first time as the No. 4 receiver.

Stewart, who has a partially torn medial collateral ligament, will miss his third consecutive game. Stewart worked out with a trainer on the sideline Friday, and Rivera said he was excited about his progress.

Backup strong safety Robert Lester is questionable after having his ankle stepped on during Friday’s practice. X-rays were negative, Rivera said.

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