(Reuters) - Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith has been ruled out of Sunday's pivotal regular-season finale against the Atlanta Falcons because of a sprained left knee, the National Football League team said on Friday.
The (11-4) Panthers earned a playoff spot by beating the (10-5) New Orleans Saints 17-13 last Sunday and would clinch the NFC South division title and a coveted first-round bye with victory over the (4-11) Falcons.
Though five-time Pro Bowler Smith has made good progress with his recovery since spraining his knee in the first quarter against the Saints, Panthers coach Ron Rivera said he preferred to give him more time to get ready for the postseason.
"Steve actually improved a lot," Rivera told reporters after team practice on Friday. "And in Steve's way, he basically said, 'If I had to, I'd play this weekend.' He probably couldn't, but he'd have tried.
"It's about going forward," Rivera said, referring to the playoffs. "This game is very important and we know it, but there are other things ahead, too."
Smith, Carolina's all-time leading receiver had a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) exam on Monday which revealed a sprained posterior cruciate ligament.
Rivera said that running back Jonathan Stewart (knee) and defensive tackle Colin Cole (calf) had also been ruled out of Sunday's game against the Falcons.
Ted Ginn Jr is expected to take over in the starting role from Smith, who has had 64 catches for 745 yards with four touchdowns this season.
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes in Los Angeles; Editing by John O'Brien)