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Panthers’ Steve Smith questionable, but Ron Rivera expects him to play

PANTHERS_PRACTICE_0110_16
Jeff Siner - jsiner@charlotteobserver.com
Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith (89) catches a pass during practice on Thursday. He practiced briefly Friday before rain intensified, and is listed as questionable for Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers.

The biggest question surrounding the Panthers this week – the status of wide receiver Steve Smith's sprained knee – will remain unanswered until Sunday morning.

That’s when Smith will test his knee again, during pre-game warmups before the NFC divisional-round game against San Francisco at Bank of America Stadium.

The team cut Smith’s practice short Friday when the rains became a little heavier at the team’s practice fields. Smith said he ran about five routes before sitting down.

Smith, who sprained the posterior collateral ligament in his left knee Dec. 22 against New Orleans, is listed as questionable for Sunday’s game, which equates to 50-50 odds in the NFL’s injury reporting policy.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera expects Smith to play.

“My gut says he’s going to play,” Rivera said. “But it’s about how he feels and where he is when it’s time.”

Smith said what was already pretty obvious: He’d been giving random percentages all week about the strength of his knee and the odds he’d play against the 49ers. He jokingly said there’s an 89 percent chance he’ll play, a number he decided on because it happens to be his jersey number.

But Smith conceded his knee didn’t feel particularly good Thursday.

“I’m going to just play ball. That’s all I’m going to do, is play ball,” Smith said. “(Thursday) I didn’t do as well as I expected. And that’s life.”

Smith said it was hard to gauge his status Friday because of his abbreviated practice time. But Rivera thought he looked good.

“Until we shut him down because of the rain, he was moving around pretty good,” Rivera said. “Once the field got pretty soft, we just didn’t want him running any more routes.”

With the Panthers scheduled only for a walkthrough Saturday, the next time he will run will be during the pre-game.

With Smith sidelined for the regular-season finale at Atlanta, Panthers wide receivers caught four passes for 22 yards. No. 2 receiver Brandon LaFell had no catches in five targets, and has just one reception for 13 yards in the past two games.

“You’d like to see Brandon continue to play well and make a few more plays,” Rivera said. “Obviously, the last couple of weeks he’s struggled. He knows it. But Domenik Hixon has stepped up and come through and we really like what we’ve gotten from Ted Ginn.” Ginn brushed off a question about the receivers’ lack of production against the Falcons, saying the Panthers “got out of their 21-20.”

But Ginn said there’s a different energy in the stadium when Smith is in the game.

“He’s our LeBron. He brings something to the table that a lot of guys don’t,” Ginn said. “We’re just going to go out and be happy to have whatever he brings.”

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