Dislocated finger won't keep Smith down

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Steve Smith was in one of those ... well, Steve Smith moods. That's the kind where you never know what's going to come out of the mouth of the Carolina Panthers wide receiver.

It's not a bad thing.

It can be quite entertaining.

And it was on this day, particularly when I asked how the dislocated finger he suffered in Wednesday's practice, the one that kept him out of Thursday's practice, was feeling.

"I think I'm out,'' Smith said with a straight face. "I'm out for Sunday. You can read it on my Twitter page tomorrow. It's breaking news.''

If Smith were out, it would be huge news considering the magnitude of Sunday's game against the New Orleans Saints that likely will decide the NFC South champion.

He's not, of course. It would take more than a dislocated finger to keep the 13-year veteran from a chance to help avenge a 31-13 loss to the Saints two weeks ago in New Orleans.

On the scale of severity, the finger was minor.

"Yeah, it's a minor thing,'' Smith said. "It'll be all right. I've had worse days. I've had better days, too.''

Smith injured a finger on his left hand trying to catch a pass that coach Ron Rivera says was tipped. Or as Smith said in his lovable but sarcastic manner, quarterback Cam Newton "threw me the hardest pass you could possibly throw in America ... catch this missile.''

So I suggested sarcastically back that Newton was trying to hurt him.

"Yeah, it's a conspiracy,'' Smith said.

No conspiracy. Newton needs Smith. The Panthers need Smith.

As much as this offense has grown to where it's not as dependent as it once was on Carolina's all-time leading receiver, what Smith brings to the team on and off the field is irreplaceable.

On the field, the Panthers need the mental and physical toughness Smith brings as a receiver and blocker. He's so determined to keep his game at the highest level that the coaching staff has to force him to sit on days like Thursday.

"It's just the way Steve is,'' Rivera said. "He works very hard at his craft. That's why he plays at such a high level continually. He's a great example for our young guys in how to practice hard.''

Off the field, the Panthers need Smith to be loose and cracking jokes as he was about his injury to keep things in perspective.

"Are people going to be tight?'' Smith said. "I think so. You've got to have multiple people that say, 'It's still a game. You've got to make it fun. You've got to keep it competitive, but you can't put more pressure on yourself than the pressure that's already instilled on you.' ''

But Smith doesn't believe the magnitude of the game has gotten so big that veterans such as himself have to remind younger players that opportunities like this don't come around often.

If the Panthers (10-4) win against the Saints and at Atlanta the following week , they would win the division, earn a first-round bye and host a playoff game. A loss and they likely would have to win the following week to make the playoffs and then play on the road as a wild card.

"Guys on this team understand it,'' Smith said. "That's like the stop sign. Some people don't pay attention to it, some people do. But I think for the most part everybody is paying attention to it.''

It's about taking advantage of opportunities. The Panthers didn't take advantage of two chances to score touchdowns inside the Saints' 20-yard line in the first meeting, costing them a chance to take control.

New Orleans and quarterback Drew Brees then swept past them like they were standing still with three second-quarter touchdowns.

"The value to this game is what it is,'' Smith said. "You've got to be on your p's and q's. The mistakes have to be minimal. We've got to take advantage of every opportunity.''

Smith, who is tied for the team lead in receptions with 63, likely will be a big part of that.

Back to the finger. A television reporter walked up as Smith was discussing how the offense would work if he couldn't play. The reporter heard him say that, and naturally followed up.

"I said I'm out,'' said Smith as the rest of us assured that wasn't the case. "I said I was out. Scratch me for the game.''

Warned you Smith was in one of those Steve Smith moods.