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When moment arrives, Panthers’ Brandon LaFell can’t fail Sunday

In the past two games, Carolina Panthers wide receiver Brandon LaFell has hardly touched the ball.

LaFell had one catch for 13 yards against New Orleans. Then he had zero catches against Atlanta – the first time since the season opener against Seattle that he had been shut out. How does he feel like he’s been playing?

“I think I’ve been playing good,” LaFell said. “I just haven’t been getting the ball. It hasn’t been thrown my way much. I’ve dropped a few. A couple of passes were overthrown. But overall I feel like I’ve been playing a good game. When I get a grade sheet every week (from his coaches), I’m still grading out high.”

LaFell has been targeted seven times altogether in those two games by Cam Newton but came up with only that one completion (although he’s right that several were overthrown).

But it is true that LaFell is underrated as a blocker, and his reliability in that facet is one reason he remains on the field. He said he has been grading out “in the 90s” each week, including these last two games. Coaches grade each play as a “plus” or “minus” for each player, with a perfect score being 100.

But the fourth-year receiver absolutely must make more plays against San Francisco, and he will get more of a chance with the return of wide receiver Steve Smith. Even though Smith likely won’t be 100 percent healthy because of his knee injury, No. 89’s mere presence should give LaFell more shots against single coverage.

“When Smitty gets back,” LaFell said, “it’s just going to open it up for everybody.”

The playoff game vs. the 49ers will be a big one for LaFell, 27, in both personal and professional terms. If the Panthers lose, it is very conceivable this will be the last game he will ever play for Carolina.

LaFell’s contract is up after this season. And although he has said he wants to be in Charlotte – and both coach Ron Rivera and Smith have said they want him back – it’s not certain he will be. It depends on the money involved and what general manager Dave Gettleman thinks.

There’s no doubt the Panthers have much work to do at the wide receiver position in the offseason. The team ranked 29th in the NFL in passing yardage this season. Smith is clearly the team’s best receiver, but he’s 34. And LaFell has had a disturbing number of drops this season.

The website Pro Football Focus charts all catchable balls thrown to receivers and then how many those receivers drop to establish a “drop rate percentage.” LaFell caught 49 and dropped eight passes out of 57 catchable throws this season, according to PFF, which gives him a drop rate of 14 percent.

That ranks LaFell 84th out of the top 94 NFL targeted receivers in drops (in other words, 83 receivers had a lower drop rate than LaFell this season). Steve Smith’s drop rate is 7.25 percent (34th) and Ted Ginn’s is 7.69 percent (38th).

When I asked Rivera how LaFell had been playing recently, he said: “Pretty well. He’s putting himself in position to be targeted. You’d like to see him make a couple of those plays (in which LaFell has dropped the ball).”

“I definitely want to catch balls,” LaFell said. “But at the end of the day, man, I just want to win.”

Rivera once made an interesting analogy, saying LaFell was a good symbol of the Panthers themselves. This was before their defense became so dominating. The way Rivera put it, LaFell occasionally struggles, as do the Panthers, but the receiver tries very hard and when he succeeds the team usually does, too.

That has definitely been true this year. When LaFell has gotten 48 or more yards receiving this season, the Panthers are 6-0. He has had a number of big catches – including a touchdown against New England – and posted his third straight season of catching between 600-700 yards worth of passes.

But on Sunday, there will be no room for drops.

LaFell has got to make plays. The Panthers are going to have to score more points to win this time – 10 just won’t get it done twice in a row vs. the 49ers. When the moment comes on Sunday – and it will – LaFell cannot LaFail.

Fowler: 704-358-5140; sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler
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