CHARLOTTE – It was the defining image of the first half the season: Cam Newton getting drilled by defensive end Michael Bennett a split second after Newton got off a fourth-and-10 pass that kept alive the Panthers' game-winning drive in Philadelphia.
What we didn't know then is Newton's target on the play, wide receiver Torrey Smith, had suffered a knee injury earlier in the Week 7 rally – something that has kept him out since. Yet Smith caught Newton's lob, slipped a tackle and sprinted down the sideline for a pick-up of 35 yards.
"I wasn't in the few plays before that, and I was like, 'The game's on the line. I've got to do whatever I have to do to make it,'" Smith recently recalled. "After we scored, I sat down and couldn't move my knee. I was like, 'This isn't normal.'"
That fourth-and-10 catch was actually Smith's third of the quarter on his hobbled knee. He suffered the injury on his initial grab, when with 13:54 left, his knee slammed into the turf after an 8-yard reception.
"You fall and bang your knee all the time and you're like, 'All right, let me walk it off,'" Smith said. "I just walked it off and kept going."
Smith made a pair of receptions to kickstart Carolina's next drive, one that eventually cut the deficit to 3.
"That's the adrenaline," Smith continued. "Like if you look at it, I look perfectly fine. That's what I'm thinking: 'This is going to be sore for a few days and I'll be fine.'"
But Smith wasn't fine.
While his teammates celebrated the biggest fourth-quarter comeback in franchise history, he couldn't bend his knee in the locker room. And for just the second time in his eight-year career, he'd be forced to miss games. The only other time was with the 49ers in 2016 when he sat out four weeks with a concussion.
"Just being available in this league is tough cause you're always hurt. You're literally always hurt," said Smith, who was listed as limited Wednesday after he practiced for the first time since the win in Philadelphia. "It's a matter of being injured and I've only been injured twice."
With Smith inching his way back, the Panthers will eventually need to decide if he'll go back to playing a majority of snaps. Young wideouts DJ Moore and Curtis Samuel have thrived in increased roles during Smith's absence, but Carolina's coaches believe Smith's veteran savvy and vertical speed are still very much worth using.
"I'm not really worried about all of that stuff. Even if it means me coming back and I have to watch more than I'm used to, whatever we have to do to win, that's what matters most to me right now," Smith said. "I don't want to be a guy that messes up chemistry. I don't want to be a guy that interferes with the development of our young guys, but I know I'm going to bring it each and every time I'm out there.
"There's a lot of mouths to feed in that room, but we'll all have our opportunities and the most important thing is to win."