The Carolina Panthers are not lacking incentive this week at Atlanta, but here’s more:
Beating the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday to clinch a first-round playoff bye is likely the best way to get Steve Smith back this season.
Smith, an emotional leader who is No. 1 on the team’s career receiving charts, was diagnosed with a sprained posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee Monday and will be evaluated on a week-to-week basis.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Smith is “highly doubtful” to play this week at Atlanta, but Rivera believes the prognosis could have been worse.
“It was very good news considering the alternative,” Rivera said. “Where he sprained it and how lack of severity there was, that was all positive news. It really was. And I’m excited and very happy for Steve.”
Luga Podesta, a sports medicine physician at Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Los Angeles, said PCL injuries generally are not as bad as ACL tears or sprains because the posterior cruciate is a thicker ligament that doesn’t affect stability as much as the anterior cruciate.
“Usually within a couple of weeks you’re able to come back,” Podesta said. “The ACL is a different story.”
Smith was injured while planting to jump for a Cam Newton pass in the first quarter Sunday in a 17-13 win against New Orleans. He returned for one play in the second quarter before limping off the field.
Smith was at Bank of America Stadium receiving treatment Monday after undergoing an MRI exam.
“He’s very optimistic. I said, ‘Hey, good news.’ He said, ‘Well, it doesn’t feel very good right now, coach,’” Rivera said. “We do know Steve. Steve’s tenacious and he’ll do everything he can. He’s going to work very, very hard.”
Beating the Falcons, who took a 4-10 record into Monday night’s game against San Francisco, would give the Panthers (11-4) the NFC South title and no worse than the No. 2 seed in the NFC. That would mean a first-round bye and a home game for at least the divisional round the weekend of Jan. 11-12.
In the meantime, the Panthers will rely on the receiving trio of Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon, who caught the game-winning, 14-yard touchdown pass from Cam Newton against the Saints.
LaFell is the team’s third-leading receiver behind tight end Greg Olsen and Smith, but caught only one pass for 13 yards against the Saints. LaFell has the versatility to play in the slot and split wide.
Ginn, 28, is enjoying a career resurgence after signing with the Panthers as a free agent during the offseason. Ginn’s 34 receptions are one more than his total in three seasons with San Francisco, which used him primarily as a returner.
Hixon, part of two Super Bowl-winning teams with the Giants, is the X-factor while Smith is out. Hixon hauled in 39 passes for 567 yards last season with the Giants, but had only three catches prior to Sunday.
Panthers offensive coordinator Mike Shula said it will take more than one player to make up for the loss of Smith.
“You lose a guy like Steve, it’s a big concern because he is such a warrior on game day and a productive player (who) presents a lot of problems for the defense, and gives you good looks in other areas to help other guys play better,” Shula said. “That being said, it’s time for other guys to step up, and they’re ready. It was no more evident than (Sunday) with what Dom did.”
Smith is not the Panthers’ only playmaker dealing with an injury.
Running back Jonathan Stewart continues to recover from a partially torn ligament in his right knee, sustained in a Week 14 loss at New Orleans. Rivera said Stewart, who has played in six games this season, would be re-evaluated Tuesday.
DeAngelo Williams has rushed for 148 yards on 27 carries the past two games and scored on a pair of long touchdowns – a 72-yard reception against the Jets and a 43-yard run in the win over the Saints.
“It is difficult,” Shula said of the injuries to Stewart and Smith. “But the good news about that is we have guys like DeAngelo, who obviously is having a really good year. (Fullback Mike) Tolbert. And then you get into the other positions, the Brandon LaFells and the Greg Olsens. We have smart players and they understand when other guys go down, they’ve got to pick their stuff up.”
The Panthers placed a club-record 18 players on injured reserve in Rivera’s first two seasons. But they’ve managed to stay healthier this season, with 12 players on IR.
The one exception has been the offensive line, which lost both its starting guards – Garry Williams and Amini Silatolu – to season-ending injuries within the first four games.
“That happens every game at some position,” left tackle Jordan Gross said. “Steve’s a critical part of what we do. But that’s why everybody practices. That’s why everybody’s in meetings. Our O-line’s gone through that where a starter’s gone down and the next guy’s had to step up. We’ve got really good depth on this team, and that’s been huge for us this year.”
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