CHARLOTTE, NC - The Carolina Panthers take on the San Francisco 49ers in a regular season rematch Sunday afternoon at Bank of America Stadium, as part of the NFC Divisional playoffs. There were several hot topics of conversation during Panthers open locker room Thursday afternoon at "The Bank."
Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith is still evaluating his health on a day-to-day basis. Smith missed most of the Panthers Week 16 matchup with the Saints after injuring his knee in the first half, and was on the sidelines as Carolina wrapped up the NFC South the following weekend in Atlanta. When asked about how he felt following Thursday's practice, Smith said, "It didn't really go well, or as good as I expected. If it's a grading curve then it's not a setback." It was hard to gather whether Steve was being serious or making a joke, but he will likely play three days from now. Some questions about his effectiveness still remain.
The Carolina offense should get a bit of a boost with the return of Panthers running back Jonathan Stewart. Stewart only appeared in six games this season, recovering from various ankle procedures last offseason and hasn't played since the Panthers Week 14 loss in New Orleans. Stewart suffered a torn MCL ligament in his knee late in that 31-13 loss at the Superdome, but reflected on practice and the first time his name is called Sunday.
"Whatever it is, if it's a run play or a pass play, you just got to do your job and prepare," Stewart said. "Practice has been going good this week and it's going to be a good show out. It's going to be more of a mental thing than anything else."
A couple of the Panthers veterans addressed the Panthers’ last playoff run and the mindset going into this one. Linebacker Thomas Davis remembers that Divisional Round loss to Arizona back in January 2009 well.
"We didn't play well," said Davis. "We had a first round bye and we didn't play well defensively and created opportunities for their offense. We left that game on a bad note, but this a totally different team."
Offensive tackle Jordan Gross added, “It’s been a while since we won a playoff game here. I've only experienced it one time and that was ten years ago, so I'm looking forward to Sunday."
Several Panthers will get their first taste of the NFL's postseason including quarterback Cam Newton and linebacker Luke Kuechly.
"We got a lot of older guys on the team that have talked about it," Kuechly said. “They say everything turns up a bit. Preseason games are fast and the regular season steps up a little more, and then the postseason is even a little more. So for me I got to get out there, get my feet wet and get adjusted and we'll be good."
The Panthers beat the 49ers 10-9 back in Week 10 of the regular season at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. Game time Sunday at Bank of America Stadium is set for 1 p.m.