SANTA CLARA -- Defensive tackle Justin Smith is expected to start the 49ers' NFC divisional-round playoff game against the Green Bay Packers on Saturday night.
But nobody will know -- Smith included -- how long he can hold up or how effective he can be playing with a partially torn left triceps tendon, a condition that occurred Dec. 16 when a bone spur became detached in his left elbow.
"God willing and the creek don't rise, he's going to play," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said Wednesday.
Smith took part in limited practice Wednesday, as he continues to rehab and build strength to return to the lineup. Smith will require surgery at the conclusion of the season and should be near full strength when training camp opens in late-July.
After Smith sustained the injury against the New England Patriots, Harbaugh optimistically declared two days later on his KNBR radio show, "Knowing what I know of Justin Smith and the situation, yeah, I think the Cowboy will be around. The Cowboy will be saddled up, ropin' and ridin'."
But Smith did not saddle up for the 49ers' final two regular-season games. He was inactive and his 185-game streak of consecutive starts came to an end. The 49ers even upgraded Smith from doubtful to questionable prior to their Dec. 23 game against the Seattle Seahawks.
"At the time, I did know the severity of it and felt that with the brace, he would be able to play with what he had," Harbaugh said. "Now, again, you're not in somebody else's body. There are strength issues. There has been significant improvement since that time."
Harbaugh, who declined to answer when asked the percentage of Smith's tendon tear, said the ultimate decision on Smith is out of his hands.
"The player knows his body the best, but the doctors have final decision," Harbaugh said. "They're not going to just let a guy go out and play if he can't protect himself, or could severely make it worse than what it already is. That's a general rule of thumb."
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Here are the 49ers and Packers practice participation reports for Wednesday:
Limited participation: CB Tarell Brown (shoulder), S Dashon Goldson (shoulder), LB Clark Haggans (shoulder), RB Bruce Miller (shoulder), LB Aldon Smith (shoulder), DT Justin Smith (elbow, triceps), DT Will Tukuafu (neck)
Full participation: LB Navorro Bowman (shoulder), TE Garrett Celek (foot), LB Tavares Gooden (ribs), G Mike Iupati (shoulder), CB Carlos Rogers (knee), LB Patrick Willis (shoulder)
Out: DE Jerel Worthy (knee)
Did not participate: WR Jarrett Boykin (ankle), WR Randall Cobb (illness), S Jerron McMillian (not injury related), WR Jordy Nelson (ankle).
Limited participation in practice: LB Clay Matthews (knee), LB Dezman Moses (hamstring).
Full participation in practice -- TE Jermichael Finley (hamstring), RB Alex Green (knee), RB James Starks (knee).