By Danny Cox
The Carolina Panthers had to win the last game of the season to get the NFC South title and a first-round bye so it's not like it was a time they could rest their players. Steve Smith had to sit out with an injury, and there were not a lot of other options for Cam Newton to rely on, but there need to be.
With Smith resting a knee injury, the Carolina Panthers barely squeaked out a victory over the Atlanta Falcons in the 2013 season finale. It was expected that one of the other wide receivers on the roster would step up to the task of filling in for their injured veteran.
Unfortunately, none of them did.
Smith injured his knee in the first quarter of the Panthers' victory over the New Orleans Saints back in week 16. It was bad enough to keep him out all of one play more in that game and then the entirety of the final game against Atlanta.
Brandon LaFell already starts opposite Smith, and it was expected that he would step up his game and become the go-to number one receiver.
Unfortunately, he didn't.
A scary stat is that since Smith got hurt, LaFell has been targeted by Newton seven times over the past seven and a half quarters. LaFell has a mere one catch for 13 yards. He has not had a single reception in five targets against the Falcons.
In all actuality, LaFell onlly has 13 receptions for 168 yards and one touchdown in the past six games.
When Steve Smith is in the lineup, LaFell's short-comings don't seem nearly as obvious. He only has 49 receptions all season, but that's not too bad for a team with a number of weapons, such as Carolina. The problem truly lies in how little LaFell does when Smith isn't in the game.
Unfortunately, that's when they need him most.
Making matters worse is that Ted Ginn Jr. got moved up the depth chart with Smith out, but he had only two receptions for six yards and a touchdown against Atlanta. DeAngelo Williams led all pass-catchers with 75 yards, but that was on just two catches.
Tight end Greg Olsen continues to be one of the most consistent in the passing game other than smith. Against Atlanta, Olsen pulled in six receptions for 42 yards and a touchdown.
On the season, Olsen has 73 receptions for over 800 yards. Smith has 64 for 745 yards. LaFell and Ginn follow up with 49 and 36 respectively, and that honestly are terrifying numbers.
Looking at some of the other NFC teams in the playoffs, there are some really impressive groups of pass catchers. The Panthers will end up playing San Francisco, Green Bay, or Philadelphia in the second round and except for the 49ers, each team has a number of receivers/tight ends that have hauled in a number of receptions and piled up the yardage.
Carolina has been able to get by with a few big wins, but they have only squeaked by in a number of others and it is due to the offensive production just not being there.
Steve Smith's injury didn't prove to be too serious. The Panthers are lucky to have the first-round bye and allow him that extra time to heal because they definitely are going to need him.
For more Carolina Panthers news and updates, visit Carolina Panthers Central.
Danny Cox knows a little something about the NFL, whether it means letting you know what penalty will come from the flag just thrown on the field or quickly spouting off who the Chicago Bears drafted in the first round of the 1987 draft (Jim Harbaugh). He plans on bringing you the best news, previews, recaps, and anything else that may come along with the exciting world of the National Football League. Danny is a freelance writer covering all things NFL. His work can be found on Examiner.com.
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