The Steelers take another dip into the reflecting pool Sunday when they play the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte, N.C., where a Super Bowl parade was considered a good bet next February.
As they did a few weeks ago when they played Tampa Bay, it's another game between teams with Super Bowl dreams gone bust. The Panthers were an early favorite to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XLI against a team from the AFC, perhaps the Steelers. Carolina reached the NFC championship game last season after going 11-5 in the regular season.
Instead, the teams lug identical 6-7 records into Sunday's 1 p.m. kickoff that not one network tried to move to a later time. Both teams technically remain alive for a playoff berth but are on life support and either one can pull the plug on the other Sunday.
"I'm sure they are disappointed as we are," Steelers coach Bill Cowher said. "Like I said, their opportunity is probably a little better than ours right now because of the conference they are in. But the records are the same. We understand the importance of all three of these games."
Wild-card berths in the NFC are likely to go to teams that have one fewer victory than the wild-card teams in the AFC. The big reason for that: The AFC is 35-21 against the NFC and has not lost the interconference series since 1995, peaking when the younger conference steamrolled the NFC, 44-20, in 2004.
The Steelers have won 10 of their past 11 games against NFC teams, dating to 2003. Their only loss came in
overtime at Atlanta this season.
"Those things are cyclical," Cowher said, even though the past 10 years show a one-sided series between the conferences. "It will run its course. What it has led to is that a lot of the better records right now in the league [are in the AFC].
"I think that's why, heading into this weekend, their wild-card teams were all 6-6. We had about five teams 7-5. That's unfortunate for us, where we are right now, it's transferred into those numbers."
While the Panthers and Steelers reflect mutual disappointment this season, they are teams headed in different directions. Carolina got off to a 4-2 start but has lost its past three and starting quarterback Jake Delhomme could miss his second consecutive game with a thumb injury. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger missed his time early and the Steelers were 2-6 before they won four of their past five.
"When they pick you to do this and pick you to do that, that doesn't matter; you still have to go out there and play the game," Steelers linebacker Joey Porter said. "A lot of times they pick people they think will do this or do that and it never pans out. At the same time, that situation they have over there is different from ours."
Chris Weinke, 34, made his first start since 2002 at quarterback for the Panthers Sunday against the Giants, and while he passed for 423 yards, he threw 61 times and three of those were intercepted.
"A lot of their passing game is very controlled," Cowher said. "They look at the pass as another extension of the running game."
The Panthers rank 21st in the NFL on the ground.
The Steelers also won their past two games despite injuries to Hines Ward and Troy Polamalu. They also were without their starting receivers and both starting safeties in their 27-7 victory against Cleveland.
The Panthers lost players early, starting with their first game when three were wiped out, and it had a large impact on the rest of their season.
The loss of left tackle Travelle Wharton caused a ripple effect in the offensive line further damaged when center Justin Hartwig also was injured in the first game. The resulting problems in their line led to problems in their ground game, which led to problems for the quarterback as well.
Inside linebacker Dan Morgan also was lost for the season in the opener, which hurt their defense.
Delhomme, who became the comeback kid last season in Carolina after leading his team to so many victories in the fourth quarter, turned into the giveback kid this season. The Panthers lost five leads in the fourth quarter in six of their setbacks.
The secondary is a mess. Starting cornerbacks Ken Lucas and Chris Gamble missed Sunday's 27-13 loss to the Giants with injuries, and the Panthers used a player from the practice squad and another signed from Tampa Bay's practice squad.
Safeties Mike Minter and Shaun Williams, in their 10th and ninth seasons, are over the hill.
Carolina does have two players Cowher said are the best at their positions in the NFL -- receiver Steve Smith, who has 71 receptions for 1,025 yards, and defensive end Julius Peppers, who leads the NFC with 11 sacks.Post-Gazette photo illustration
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Ed Bouchette can be reached at email@example.com .