CHARLOTTE, N.C. - As the week goes on and the big game gets closer, the Carolina Panthers are becoming more relevant.
At the start of the week, the Panthers were a 2.5-point underdog vs. the 49ers for the Divisional Playoff game Sunday.
The spread has steadily gone down as more people are predicting the Panthers can hang with the red-hot 49ers and could even win the game.
Vegas odds-makers have the Panthers as a 1-point underdog on Thursday.
A big factor in the Panthers pulling closer is the return of wide receiver Steve Smith.
Panthers 10-1 odds to win Super Bowl
Smith practiced on Wednesday with the first-team offense and said he will play Sunday.
Running back Jonathan Stewart returned to practice also, and is expected to play.
The Panthers beat the 49ers in November 10-9.
The story was the stingy Panthers defense -- led by linebacker Luke Kuechly, who finished the game with 11 tackles and a sack -- which made sure the narrow one-point lead held up.
Newton on Kaepernick: `Two different players'
Cam Newton says he doesn't like being compared to Colin Kaepernick.
"Two different players," Newton says.
Yet the Panthers' third-year quarterback understands the parallels with the 49ers' star. They both entered the NFL in 2011. They're both big, strong-armed guys who can shred a secondary with their arms and burn you with their feet.
Says Newton: "Being a big guy, being fast and being agile and having the art of throwing like only God has blessed a few people with -- and Kaepernick has it (too)."
Newton and Kaepernick go head-to-head again Sunday with a trip to the NFC championship game on the line.
Neither quarterback played particularly well in the Panthers' 1-point win over the 49ers in November.
Panthers Pride Kickoff Party live Friday
Channel 9 will bring you everything Panthers playoffs in prime time Friday night.
Join Eyewitness News anchors Erica Bryant and Blair Miller at 8 p.m. for the Panthers’ Pride Kickoff Party live from the EpiCentre. We will have player interviews, important information for fans about traffic, parking and tickets.
Plus ESPN.com David Newton will be answering fans’ questions live on Twitter. The show airs live from 8 - 9 p.m.
For more details on the live show, click here.