Win gives Smith chance to play in 2 weeks

ATLANTA -- Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith had the option to stay at home on Sunday and rehabilitate the sprained knee that put him on the inactive list.

He didn't.

The team's all-time leading receiver wanted to be with his teammates and do whatever he could to help beat the Atlanta Falcons in the Georgia Dome and clinch the NFC South title.

If that meant carrying a clipboard or being a cheerleader or telling quarterback Cam Newton to "calm down" after throwing a first-half interception, he'd do it. He just wanted to continue to be a part of a season that he predicted could be special when few others imagined it possible.

"To encourage those guys, to be around them," Smith said after the 21-20 victory over the Falcons. "These guys, they want me on the field. I want to be on the field. I could have chose to be at home, but that's not where I need to be. I need to be here.

"Also, as you get a little older, you start to know that in times like this, if you kind of be by yourself, you go into that woe is me. I didn't want to go there, and I knew these guys would help me feel good about it."

The Panthers (12-4) made it a worthwhile trip, earning a first-round bye that will turn out to be huge for Smith. He admitted that as much as he might want to play next week if the Panthers had lost and dropped to a wild-card game, he probably couldn't have.

The odds of him being ready for a home playoff game in two weeks are much greater.

"The longer the better," Smith said. "A short turnaround, you can't do it. All the medicine, all the stuff you take, all the treatment, your body is only going to move at the pace you want to move at.

"I feel it is coming along, but you can't go from being not able to run, to now I'm able to walk without a limp, to all of a sudden I'm running these routes full speed. That's unrealistic."

But Smith didn't think it was unrealistic for Carolina to be in this position. He said after a 12-7 loss to Seattle in the opener that the Panthers would face the Seahawks again deep into the playoffs.

If Carolina and the Seahawks win their playoff games in two weeks, that meeting would happen for the NFC Championship in Seattle.

"Sometimes the outcome of a game doesn't dictate how that team is going to be for the remainder of the season," Smith said. "It's just a hiccup.

"I felt like we could be and we are, a pretty good team."