The biggest question surrounding the Carolina 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 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 there 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.”
Injury report: In addition to Smith, running back Jonathan Stewart (knee) and starting defensive tackle Colin Cole (calf) also are listed as questionable. Tight end Ben Hartsock (knee) and strong safety Quintin Mikell (thumb) are probable.
Stewart has missed the past three games after tearing the MCL in his right knee against New Orleans on Dec. 8, and has played in five games all season following offseason surgeries on both ankles.
“He didn’t have a really big workload this week, so we’ll see how he is come (Saturday),” Rivera said.
Playoff atmosphere: Much has been made about the Panthers’ lack of recent playoff experience compared to that of the 49ers, who are trying to reach the NFC championship game for the third year in a row.
Rivera, who won a Super Bowl as a player with Chicago and coached in one as the Bears’ defensive coordinator, said other than the finality for the losing team, he thinks the pressure of a playoff game is on par with an important regular-season game.
“One of my old (Bears) teammates, Jim Morrissey, always used to say, ‘If you’ve got to turn it up a notch when you get to the playoffs, then you weren’t giving it your all during the regular season,’ ” Rivera said. “And I’ve always kind of agreed with that.”
Noise pollution: It’s not uncommon for the Panthers to practice with piped-in crowd noise before going on the road to play a dome team or in loud opposing stadiums. But the Panthers practiced with nose blaring from a pair of speakers Friday for their defensive drills, anticipating the BoA crowd will be loud when the Niners have the ball.
“We were playing a little bit of just loud noise,” Rivera said. “I got a headache from it.”
Officially speaking: Referee Carl Cheffers will work his first playoff game this year, but it’s not the first time he’s seen these teams. Cheffers was the referee for the Panthers’ 10-9 win at San Francisco on Nov. 10, a game that featured only seven accepted penalties – four on the 49ers.
Tom Symonette, the line judge for Sunday’s game, held the same role for the Nov. 10 game.
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