Carolina Panthers receiver Steve Smith continues to “ice up” in hopes of being ready for the NFL playoffs.
Smith, who has a sprained ligament in his left knee, is one of three starters out for Sunday’s game at Atlanta. Running back Jonathan Stewart (partially torn knee ligament) and defensive tackle Colin Cole (strained calf) also are out.
Coach Ron Rivera seemed optimistic that Smith would be available the next week if the Panthers have to play a first-round game as a wild card.
“I’d like to believe so, knowing who he is,” Rivera said Friday. “Don’t bet against him.”
All the injured players would be better served if the Panthers (11-4) win Sunday, which would clinch the NFC South and a first-round bye. Smith has a sprained posterior cruciate ligament, an injury that usually takes two to three weeks to heal.
Smith, who coined a catchphrase when he urged Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib to “ice up, son” after a Monday night game in November, has been spending long days at Bank of America Stadium rehabbing the knee.
“Steve’s actually improved a lot,” Rivera said. “In Steve’s way, he basically said, ‘If I had to, I’d play this weekend.’ He probably couldn’t, but he’d try.”
With Smith sidelined, the Panthers will use a receiving rotation of Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon, the latter of whom caught the game-winning touchdown pass last weekend against New Orleans.
Marvin McNutt, a former Iowa player who was signed in October, will be active for the first time as the No. 4 receiver.
Stewart, who has a partially torn medial collateral ligament, will miss his third consecutive game. He worked out with a trainer on the sideline Friday, and Rivera said he was excited about his progress.
Backup strong safety Robert Lester is questionable after having his ankle stepped on during Friday’s practice. X-rays were negative, Rivera said.
Newton’s mobility: Quarterback Cam Newton is probable with an ankle injury he sustained in the second half against the Saints. He stayed in the game, but his mobility clearly was affected.
Newton ran four times for 6 yards, the second-lowest total of his career. He was at full participation for both of the Panthers’ practices this week, but Rivera said coaches and trainers would keep a close eye on him.
“We have to react to how he is – game speed, full speed,” Rivera said. “We’ve got to react and just know what we can do and can’t do.”
New champ again: The NFC South either is the picture of parity the NFL tries to maintain with its salary cap structure or a weak division that has lacked a dominant team since its creation in the league’s 2002 realignment.
With Carolina and New Orleans vying for first place, the NFC South again will have a new champion this season. The division has never had a repeat champion.
“It’s a good division. It’s up and down. One year it could be somebody, and one year it could be somebody else,” Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson said. “We bump heads a lot. I guess that kind of hurts us a lot because we bump heads so much.”
All of the other seven divisions have had repeat winners, including five divisions that have had multiple teams repeat as champs.
A win against Atlanta would secure first place for the Panthers and give each of the four NFC South teams three division crowns. That history is in sharp contrast to the AFC North, where the Patriots have won 10 titles, and the AFC South, which the Colts have won eight times.
Rivera said the NFC South is competitive but doesn’t get the respect it deserves because there hasn’t been a dominant team.
“We all have what we believe is our franchise quarterback. I know Tampa feels very good about (Mike) Glennon,” Rivera said. “Each team has an attacking-style defense. They’ve got playmakers at wide receiver and running back, and tight ends that can make plays.
“So this is going to be a tough division I think for a long time. Hopefully we can continue to compete against each other and people will start talking about us being one of the better divisions in the NFL.”
Golden child? Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy was fined $5,250 for violating the league’s uniform policy when he wore gold cleats against the Saints. Hardy tweeted last week he was planning something special for fans. It turned out to be his choice of the “Incredible Hulk” Under Armour cleats given to him by Newton.
Also from the Saints-Panthers game, New Orleans safety Kenny Vaccaro was fined $17,750 for his horse-collar tackle on running back DeAngelo Williams.
Vaccaro, who also was penalized for taunting after the tackle, later left the game with a fractured ankle and is out for the season.
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