- David Newton, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Jordan Gross and Travelle Wharton ended the Carolina Panthers' practice on Thursday with a 50-yard dash that a pair of offensive linemen approaching their mid-30s probably shouldn't engage in as they prepare for a playoff game.
Apparently, instant replay will be needed to decide the winner.
But it was Gross' way of saying you can be serious in your preparation for a big playoff game as the Panthers have on Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers, but it's OK to have a little fun.
It also was the left tackle's way of saying he's going to make the most of this experience, knowing the next game could be his last because his contract is up and the team hasn't indicated whether they want him to return for a 12th season.
Or if he wants to return.
Gross, 33, said a lot of players should be playing as if the next game is the last. He reminded the Panthers haven't been back to the Super Bowl since his rookie year of 2003 or the playoffs since 2008.
"You never know what could happen," Gross said. "People have asked me a lot what I'm doing. I say, 'I don't know, but I do know there's a good chance this could be my last game here.'"
He means Bank of America Stadium, where even if the second-seeded Panthers win they will need a loss by top-seeded Seattle against New Orleans in the other NFC playoff game to play another home game.
For the Panthers to advance Gross will play a key role in several ways. First, he'll have to help block San Francisco linebacker Aldon Smith, who was making his first start back after rehabilitation for alcohol abuse when the Panthers won 10-9 at Candlestick Park.
Smith was on the field for only 12 plays that day, but in 11 games he still has 8.5 sacks.
"He's a great player," Gross said. "He's had a little hiatus this season, but still his sack numbers are good. Young, athletic, strong, fast ... everything you would want a pass-rusher to be. Definitely going to have my hands full."
Gross is up to it. He's had one of his better seasons even though he was snubbed in Pro Bowl and All-Pro balloting.
Gross also is a motivational leader. Many teammates credit his "Highlanders" speech before the Oct. 13 game at Minnesota as a catalyst for the team's turnaround from a 1-3 start to 12-4.
He gave a "Hoosiers" speech earlier this week.
"Of it's still football, it's still the same size hoop, it's still the same size free throw line," Gross said. "For us it's the same size field and it's a team we've already played once. It's big, but we've been in a lot of pressure games this year.
"We haven't had the luxury of losing a game for almost three months, so the guys are used to playing with the season on the line."
No Gene Hackman imitations for Gross, though.
"I can't do a Gene Hackman voice, but I can get out my tape measure," he said.
His race with Wharton may need a laser to determine a winner.
"It was real close," Gross said of what was less than a sprint with his left guard and best friend. "Have you ever seen the movie 'Cars?' He's probably Lightning McQueen. I'm probably Chick Hicks."
For good or bad, there was a sequel to 'Cars.' Maybe there will be a sequel to this season for Gross.