Carolina Panthers receiver Steve Smith first put his chances of playing in Sunday’s playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers at 60 percent.
A couple of minutes later, Smith said in no uncertain terms that he will play in the NFC divisional-round game against the 49ers, even if his sprained left knee is less than 100 percent.
“It’s not about can I go? It’s about how confident do I feel when I am going? I will play Sunday,” Smith said Monday. “But it’s how much of that I don’t worry about the knee. That’s when the confidence increases.
“And that’s by still doing treatment, still doing things every day to build that muscle memory, to know where my limit is on how to bend it and all that stuff. And truly, that only can be worked out by pushing it more and more every day.”
Smith sprained his posterior cruciate ligament in the first half against the Saints on Dec. 22, and he sat out the regular-season finale at Atlanta. After Carolina’s 21-20 win at the Georgia Dome, Smith said he would not have been able to play in a wild-card game during the first weekend of the playoffs.
But the Panthers’ first-round bye gave Smith an extra week to rehab, hit the treadmill and try to get the swelling out of his knee.
Smith said he “crushed” his rehab Monday, when he worked out on the side during the Panthers’ practice.
“Cardio’s a little challenging,” Smith said. “But the leg is pretty good. Cardio kicked my butt.”
Smith said he expects to practice Wednesday. Even if he is less than full strength, getting Smith back will be a boost to the Panthers’ passing offense, his teammates and coaches said.
With Smith sidelined at Atlanta, the Panthers’ top three receivers combined for four catches for 22 yards. No. 2 receiver Brandon LaFell was targeted five times against the Falcons but had no receptions.
“Whenever you see a Hall of Famer come back, you have to respect his presence on the field, whether he’s in the slot, out wide, in the backfield, whatever,” fullback Mike Tolbert said. “If you don’t, he’ll burn you.”
Smith, 34, is the Panthers’ second-leading receiver behind tight end Greg Olsen. Smith caught 64 passes for 745 yards and four touchdowns during the regular season, although his 11.6 yards-per-catch average was the second-lowest of his 13-year career.
Smith responded sarcastically Monday when asked about his return, as well as that of San Francisco receiver Michael Crabtree, who did not play in the teams’ first meeting in Week 10.
“I’m not on the same level as Crabtree. I’m just an old dude,” Smith said. “I’ve got the things I’ve got to work on and battle through. That’s fine. I don’t really care, to be honest.”
Smith is the Panthers’ career receiving leader and the second-longest tenured player in team history, behind former kicker John Kasay. Smith and left tackle Jordan Gross are the only remaining players from the 2003 Super Bowl team, a topic Smith did not feel like discussing Monday.
“I think we’ve got to get out of the past. I think we hold on to the past a little bit too much, especially in the negative. It’s a new team, new coaches, new quarterback. Everything’s new,” he said. “There’s only, what, two guys on this team that are left as players on that team? And we keep wanting to talk about it.
“It’s time for us to move on and be (the) 2013, playoff-bound team that’s going to host a division game. Hopefully things work out, and we play well and maybe that’s not the end of it.”
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