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Panthers' Greg Hardy awaiting big pay day

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP)

(Eds: Updates with quotes, details. With AP Photos.)By STEVE REEDAP Sports Writer

Greg Hardy knows he made a big impact with his late-season flurry of sacks.

''It's huge,'' he says.

The Panthers' defensive end will become an unrestricted free agent in March and is set up for one healthy pay day.

Hardy had eight sacks in his final three games and tied a Carolina franchise-record with 15 sacks this season. He had 24 sacks in his last 25 games. Four of those sacks came Sunday against Atlanta, helping the Panthers (12-4) win the NFC South and a first-round bye with a 21-20 victory.

He wants to sign a long-term deal with Carolina, but is fine if the team uses the franchise tag on him. Franchise tag numbers haven't been released for 2014, but last year it was $11.175 million for his position.

''I would love a franchise (tag), man,'' Hardy said. ''Add another year on my career. ... Another year to be in Carolina just to get them a chance to get their fiscal responsibilities in order so we can be here forever like Steve (Smith) and a lot of other guys.''

''One year to get the bank right,'' he added. ''One year to get the team right. Another championship.''

The Panthers will be tight under the NFL salary cap next year, and have other pressing issues, including whether to give quarterback Cam Newton a contract extension.

Hardy, who paints his face on game day and said he turns into an alter persona called the ''Kraken,'' said regardless of what happens his focus now is getting the Panthers to the Super Bowl. He's letting agent Drew Rosenhaus worry about the contract.

''It's not going to stop, not because of a contract,'' Hardy said. ''Because I really, really get a kick out of dominating whatever I want.''

Hardy said he loves living in Charlotte. But even more than that he enjoys playing for coach Ron Rivera, who gave him a chance to start in 2011 after a motorcycle accident left Hardy with burns on his body and out for most of the preseason.

''That's the guy that gave me a starting position when I couldn't even walk,'' Hardy said. ''So that's my guy. This organization has always had my back when nobody wanted to take a chance on me in the draft.''

The former sixth-round draft pick out of Mississippi said if talk turns to a long-term contract he's willing to give the Panthers a hometown discount. But he would want ''a big number that I worked for. Nothing imaginary.''

The 25-year-old Hardy has played for the NFL league minimum the last four seasons.

''I want to be compensated and get what I deserve,'' he said.

The largest Panthers contract belongs to their other starting defensive end, Charles Johnson. He received a six-year, $76 million deal in 2011.

''The way he's playing right now there ain't no telling what he's going to get,'' Johnson said with a laugh.

Rivera says it's ''important'' the Panthers keep Hardy.

''The young man is playing well right now. The nice thing we have going for us is he offered to take a hometown discount, so we'll hold him to it,'' Rivera said with a laugh. ''But he's done a great job. But we'll have to wait and see until we get to that point in the year. But right now he's doing a great job. He's practiced very well, prepared very well and it's showing on the football field.''

For now, Hardy is savoring the moment and an opportunity of a lifetime.

''It's a great time in my life,'' Hardy said. ''It's optimum, precise. It's everything I would classify as a perfect year.''

NOTES: Rivera said the team will hold wide receiver Steve Smith out of practice this week in hopes of getting him ready to play in the divisional playoffs. Smith has a sprained knee ligament. ... Running back Jonathan Stewart and defensive tackle Colin Cole participated in the team's walkthrough practice without pads Wednesday.

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org

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Follow Steve Reed on Twitter: http://twitter.com/SteveReedAP

Tagged: Panthers, Steve Smith Sr., Greg Hardy

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