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Panthers’ Ron Rivera hopeful Steve Smith will be ready after bye week

Carolina Panthers Steve Smith made it clear Sunday he needed the first-round NFC playoff bye to get healthy, and his coach was optimistic Smith would be back for the Jan. 12 divisional-round game.

“I believe he’s going to be back out there, knowing Steve,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “It’s a challenge and he expects to be out there and I concur just knowing who he is. He’ll do everything he can to be on that football field.”

Smith suffered a knee sprain two weeks ago against New Orleans and has not practiced since.

Tight end Ben Hartsock re-injured his knee Sunday. Rivera said Hartsock was missed in run blocking and could have returned to the game, but the Panthers decided to sit him for the remainder of the game.

Mitchell re-injured his shoulder, but Rivera did not express concern about him.

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