Smith: No Practice, No Play?

Last year, the Vikings hit bottom thanks in part to Steve Smith. This year, it looks as though he won't be a factor in the Vikings' game with the Panthers.

Drew Carter and Geoff Hangartner.

Who?

For a Panthers team that already knew it would be without left tackle Travelle Wharton and middle linebacker Dan Morgan, it appears for all intents that Carolina will have Carter and Hangartner in its starting lineup Sunday against the Vikings.

They won't be replacing Wharton and Morgan, but will be the likely starters if All-Pro Steve Smith and center Justin Hartwig can't play, a reality that became clearer Friday when both missed another practice -- the last before the Panthers headed to Minnesota for Sunday's game.

Smith has missed almost all of the preseason and Week 1 of the regular season with two separate hamstring injuries. Once again he didn't practice on Friday and Panthers sources are saying that he is likely to be deactivated for tomorrow's game. The same goes for Hartwig, who was also pulled from practice Friday.

The Panthers offense gashed the Vikings last year when the teams met, thanks in large part to Smith, who caught 11 passes for 201 yards and a touchdown. Considering that the Panthers gave up 252 rushing yards to the Falcons last week in a season-opening 20-6 loss, the Carolina defense has some questions that need answering. Now it would appear that the offense has similar questions.

The Vikings, who were as much as a two-point underdog earlier in the week, have gone to a one-point favorite with the anticipated absence of Smith from the lineup, which will put the onus of the passing game on to veteran Keyshawn Johnson, Carter and Keary Colbert.

The Panthers remain a dangerous team, but with as many as four of their top weapons, including their top passing threat, two offensive linemen and their middle linebacker, on the shelf, the Vikings have gone from being a question mark to likely a clear favorite Sunday.

Timing is everything in football and it couldn't be worse for the Panthers right now -- or better for the Vikings.

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