CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- How's this for a conspiracy theory?
"Some of us were joking around last week that Indianapolis lost on purpose [to Jacksonville] because they don't want to play us in the playoffs," Steelers linebacker Larry Foote was saying yesterday.
Silly speculation that even Oliver Stone wouldn't touch?
But no one was laughing in the Steelers' locker room after they put a 37-3 whipping on the Carolina Panthers, winning a third consecutive game for the first time all season, climbing back to .500 for the first time since they were 1-1 in September and leaving no doubt they are playing their best football.
The thought of sitting out the postseason -- still a virtual certainty despite the impressive tail-kicking here -- hurt too much to laugh.
"Hanging on the respirator," linebacker James Farrior described the Steelers' position.
Actually, it's much worse than that.
The Steelers got a little help yesterday when Jacksonville lost at Tennessee, but that was more than neutralized by the New York Jets' win at Minnesota and Denver's win at Arizona. Regardless of what happens in the Cincinnati-Indianapolis game tonight, four teams will have fewer losses than the Steelers, five if Kansas City beat San Diego last night. Only two from that group will qualify for the playoffs.
"We put ourselves in the situation that we're in," linebacker Joey Porter said.
It's true. You know it's true. You lose six of your first eight games, you don't deserve to make the playoffs. Shoot, you manage to find a way to lose to the Oakland Raiders, you don't deserve to be within a million miles of the playoffs.
But that doesn't mean it won't be a crying shame in at least one big way if the Steelers don't make it. They suddenly have the look of, as Foote and so many others were quick to point out, a team that would be a tough out. Their defense has given up 13 points in the past three games. Their offense didn't commit a turnover yesterday and got 132 more rushing yards from Willie Parker. Their special teams, which have improved dramatically, got a blocked punt by James Harrison and a 65-yard punt return for a touchdown by Santonio Holmes.
"Now, we just want a shot," defensive end Aaron Smith said. "Just give us a shot. I said the same thing last year. We got in and you saw what happened."
The Steelers won the Super Bowl.
It's not preposterous to think they could make another deep run if they somehow lucked into a miracle in the next two weeks.
The defense sacked Carolina quarterback Chris Weinke five times, the second time in three games it had five. It held the Panthers to 43 rushing yards. It limited the great Steve Smith to five catches for 56 yards.
The offensive line played its third consecutive strong game. It didn't just open holes for Parker, it gave quarterback Ben Roethlisberger time to convert four third downs of 9 yards or longer. Better yet, Roethlisberger didn't throw an interception for the second consecutive game.
The Steelers even used a trick play that brought back wonderful memories.
"It was the same play as in the Super Bowl," wide receiver Hines Ward said. "The only difference was the safety stayed back this time so I couldn't run by him."
Cedrick Wilson -- playing the part of Antwaan Randle El -- took a handoff from Roethlisberger and started around right end before pulling up and hitting Ward with a rope for a 21-yard gain.
"He's got a stronger arm than I do, I think," Roethlisberger said of Wilson.
Throw in the huge plays by the special teams and the fact the Steelers took only two penalties for 10 yards and it was a perfect day.
"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't playing the what-if game," Foote said.
Mornings like this, you can't help but think about Ricardo Colclough's fumbled punt against Cincinnati, Nate Washington's flinch at Atlanta, Roethlisberger's four interceptions at Oakland and the burnt toast that was Ike Taylor against Denver.
If the Steelers had won any one of those games, they might not be sitting pretty in the playoff chase, but they'd certainly have a much stronger pulse.
"We're still in it until they say we're out of it."
It ain't over until it's over, either.
It's not over until the fat lady sings.
Blah. Blah. Blah.
Hey, it's all the Steelers have to grasp at the moment.
"All I know," said Smith, the big defensive end, "I wouldn't want to play us in the playoffs."
Sadly and almost certainly, no team will have to.Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Hines Ward caught four passes for 59 yards yesterday against the Panthers in Charlotte, N.C.
Click photo for larger image.