CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -- Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith has been ruled out for Sunday's game against the Atlanta Falcons.
Panthers coach Ron Rivera made the announcement following Friday's practice, adding that running back Jonathan Stewart (knee) and defensive tackle Colin Cole (calf) will not play either.
Smith sprained his left knee during Carolina's 17-13 win over New Orleans last Sunday. The win assured the Panthers a playoff spot, but this week's game looms even larger. Carolina (11-4) can wrap up the NFC South division title and a first-round bye by beating the Falcons.
''Steve has actually improved a lot,'' Rivera said. ''In Steve's way he basically said if I had to I would play this weekend. He probably couldn't, but he would try.''
Rivera, however, said the team doesn't want to risk losing Smith for the playoffs.
''Not a chance,'' Rivera said. ''It's about going forward. This game is very important and we know it. But there are other things ahead, too.''
Rivera said if the Panthers don't win the NFC South and secure a first-round bye, he expects Smith would be ready to play next Sunday in the wild-card round of the playoffs.
Smith leads the team with 67 receptions for 774 yards and five touchdowns.
Ted Ginn Jr. is expected to start at wide receiver for Smith, but Domenik Hixon will see increased action.
Falcons coach Mike Smith acknowledged earlier in the week his team will probably alter how it defends the Panthers if Smith doesn't play.
''Steve Smith is one of the most competitive, not just wide receivers, football players that I've been fortunate enough or, we've been fortunate enough, to compete against,'' Smith said. ''He brings a lot of energy. He brings a lot of passion to the way he plays the game. You do defend a little bit differently when Steve Smith is in the game based on where he's aligned and what the down and distance is, because to me he's one of the marquis wide receivers still in the NFL.''
Rivera said he's interested to see what Brandon LaFell will do as Carolina's primary wide receiver. LaFell is third on the team in receptions with 49 for 627 yards and five touchdowns.
''Brandon has done nothing but take strides and get better as a football player,'' Rivera said. ''And it will also be good to see as far as Ted Ginn is concerned and Domenik Hixon. These three guys have done some really good things for us. It will help us gauge where we're at.''
The Panthers are also expected to lean heavily on tight end Greg Olsen, who has 64 receptions for 747 yards and four touchdowns.
NOTES: Safety Robert Lester was added to the injury report Friday as questionable after getting his ankle stepped on at practice.
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