Panthers WR Steve Smith ruled out for Sunday’s game vs. Falcons

Associated Press photo by MIKE McCARN -- Carolina Panthers receiver Steve Smith is helped off the field after being injured in the first half of Sunday's game against the New Orleans Saints in Charlotte, N.C. Show caption
Associated Press photo by MIKE McCARN -- Carolina Panthers receiver Steve Smith is helped off the field after being injured in the first half of Sunday's game against the New Orleans Saints in Charlotte, N.C.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith has been ruled out for Sunday’s game against the Falcons.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera made the announcement after 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.

Cowboys

Romo has surgery, out for Eagles finale: Tony Romo had back surgery and will miss Dallas’ third straight season finale with the NFC East title and a playoff berth on the line.

Coach Jason Garrett said Romo underwent surgery Friday after consultation with doctors during the week following his injury in a win over Washington.

Kyle Orton will start for the Cowboys in the winner-take-all game against Philadelphia on Sunday night.

Romo lost the past two winner-take-all finales — to the New York Giants two years ago and Washington last season. He also lost to the Eagles in the same situation in 2008.

Philadelphia (9-6) is trying to complete a worst-to-first turnaround from a 4-12 season under first-year coach Chip Kelly. The Cowboys (8-7) want to end a three-year playoff drought.

Around the league

Chiefs WR Dwayne Bowe has a concussion and LB Tamba Hali some swelling in his knee. Both were ruled out for Sunday’s game at San Diego. ... Seahawks CB Walter Thurmond, returning from a four-game suspension, is expected to be activated before Sunday’s game against St. Louis. ... Bucs S Dashon Goldson was fined $60,000 by the NFL on Friday for his helmet-to-helmet hit on Rams WR Stedman Bailey. ... The Bears agreed to a four-year contract extension with K Robbie Gould through 2017.