Carolina Panthers WR Steve Smith says sprained knee is ‘71 percent’ healed

jperson@charlotteobserver.comJanuary 8, 2014 

Jets Panthers Football

Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith, shown in a file photo, participated in practice on Wednesday and said afterward his sprained knee was “71percent.”

MIKE MCCARN — AP

Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith isn’t a doctor, but he seems to be enjoying playing one with his updates on his sprained knee.

Smith practiced Wednesday for the first time since injuring his left knee two weeks ago, but it’s still unclear how effective Smith will be Sunday in an NFC playoff game against San Francisco (1:05 p.m., Bank of America Stadium).

“Felt good, 71 percent. That’s where I’m at,” Smith said. “I was at 60 (percent) after Monday so today I’m 71.”

Smith, the franchise’s all-time receiving leader, was listed as limited on the injury report.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera said Smith “was not that limited,” although the team did limit the number of reps Smith took.

“You’re always concerned about something coming off an injury, so it’s more of a mental thing than physical. And that’s the part I have to get over, the mental aspect of it,” Smith said. “Physically, I’m fine. But just mentally every day getting better each and every day.”

Smith sprained his posterior collateral ligament in the first half against the Saints on Dec. 22, and missed the regular-season finale at Atlanta. The Panthers’ passing game struggled without him.

No. 2 receiver Brandon LaFell had no catches on five targets, and wideouts Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon combined for four catches for 22 yards.

While Smith and defensive tackle Colin Cole (calf) were limited Wednesday, running back Jonathan Stewart (knee), tight end Ben Hartsock (knee) and safety Quintin Mikell (thumb) practiced fully.

Stewart sat out the final three regular-season games after tearing the MCL in his right knee at New Orleans on Dec. 8. Stewart said he expects to play against the 49ers, although Rivera declined to say how extensive the playing time would be.

“It felt good, like I am definitely getting back in the groove again,” Stewart said. “I felt pretty good.”

Defensive end Greg Hardy returned after missing Monday’s practice with what he called a form of bronchitis.

ARE YOU EXPERIENCED? The Panthers’ lack of recent playoff experience has become one of the dominant storylines this week, although both coaches downplayed the significance of it Wednesday.

The 49ers advanced to the NFC Championship Game in Jim Harbaugh’s first season, then made it to the Super Bowl last season. This is the Panthers’ first postseason appearance since 2008.

“Two years ago they (the 49ers) didn’t have any playoff experience, and they did pretty well,” Rivera said. “I feel pretty comfortable about that.”

Harbaugh, the first coach since the 1970 merger to win at least 13 games in each of his first three seasons, said he’s not planning to talk to his team about their previous playoff success.

“I’ve always really felt where you’re going is a heck of a lot more important than where you come from,” Harbaugh said on a conference call. “I think that will be the greatest share.”

FREQUENT FLIERS: While the Panthers had a bye last weekend, the 49ers were playing a physical game in subzero temperatures in Green Bay. San Francisco will make a cross-country flight Friday, and play Sunday with the kickoff set for 10:05 a.m. Pacific time (1:05 p.m. in Charlotte).

Advantage, Carolina?

“I don’t know if there’s any advantage to it,” Rivera said. “You can say, ‘They kept working, so they could keep their continuity going,’ which is good for them. My understanding is coach Harbaugh will probably bring them out early on Friday, give them a chance to get used to it.

“So I don’t think there’s an advantage. I think the advantage will be this home field.”

MEDIA CRUSH: When Rivera walked into the media room Wednesday, he looked at the large crowd and quipped: “There must be something big going on.”

Nearly 40 media members showed up, at least two times the usual turnout for a typical Wednesday. The group included reporters from the New York Times, the Philadelphia Daily News, USA Today and a Canadian sports network.

Rivera, who won a Super Bowl as a player, said he told his players the increased attention comes with the territory.

“I talk about this is where you guys got yourselves to because you’ve become relevant. You’ve done the things you needed to to be relevant,” Rivera said. “Now to stay relevant you better go out and seize your moment.”

Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson

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