Bye nearly wrapped up as Steelers roll by Carolina

A victory Sunday by Browns or win in Cleveland next week clinches division



The Steelers did their part and now it's down to one team -- Cleveland, either this Sunday or next.

After they put the Carolina Panthers in a 27-3 box at Heinz Field and returned them to Charlotte, N.C., for Christmas, the Steelers turn toward Cleveland to determine if they get a first-round bye in the playoffs.

Should the Browns upset Baltimore Sunday in Cleveland, the Steelers will clinch the AFC North Division and the No. 2 playoff seed in the conference. If Baltimore beats the Browns, the Steelers can produce the same playoff spot by winning Jan. 2 in Cleveland.

"I'm rooting for Cleveland," linebacker James Farrior proclaimed. "I'm a Cleveland fan this weekend. ... It wouldn't hurt to get a little help from somebody."

The Steelers raised their record to 11-4. The Panthers are 2-13.

The Steelers ran out to a 20-0 halftime lead against Carolina and toyed with the Panthers in the second half.

PG VIDEO: STEELERS REPORT

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who threw for a career-high 259 yards in the first half, opened the scoring in the second half with a 1-yard sneak but several other opportunities fell by the wayside.

"We left a lot out there," Roethlisberger said. "We should have scored more points."

Mike Wallace caught a 43-yard touchdown pass from Roethlisberger, Rashard Mendenhall ran a yard for another touchdown and Shaun Suisham kicked field goals of 26 and 29 yards, all in the first half.

Roethlisberger completed 22 of 32 passes for 320 yards. Wallace caught four passes for 104 yards. Mendenhall rushed for 68 yards.

The Panthers played every bit as bad as their record. Quarterback Jimmy Clausen completed just 10 of 23 passes for 72 yards, one Bryant McFadden interception and four sacks. They produced 74 yards rushing on 22 carries.

Now the Steelers get 10 days off, can celebrate Christmas at home or, like rookie Maurkice Pouncey, with his family in Florida. Should the Browns win Sunday, they won't play another meaningful game until Jan. 15-16.

"Merry, Merry Christmas, Steelers Nation," defensive end Brett Keisel proclaimed. "It's a good weekend for us."

"It's great to get the win; we can go home and relax the next couple of days and enjoy Christmas with our families," Farrior said. "And we can watch Cleveland beat Baltimore."

The game Thursday night was rarely in doubt after the Panthers flirted with scoring opportunities early.

After Carolina's promising opening drive fizzled and the Panthers punted with the ball just 32 yards from the end zone, the Steelers scored on their first drive.

The longest play was the first, a 35-yard run off the left side by Mendenhall to the Carolina 45. Roethlisberger also completed a 20-yard pass to Heath Miller to the 11. On third down from the 8, Roethlisberger threw what was ruled a touchdown pass to rookie Emmanuel Sanders. But referee Bill Leavy overturned it via replay when it was obvious Sanders had dropped the ball as he fell to the turf.

Suisham then came on and kicked a 26-yard field goal for a 3-0 lead.

Carolina reached the Steelers 32 again on their second series and this time went for it. Farrior sacked Clausen on fourth down.

McFadden intercepted Clausen's deep pass at the Steelers 43 and three plays later, Wallace took a short slant pass from Roethlisberger, split two Panthers and no one could catch him on way to a 43-yard touchdown, the ninth for Wallace this season.

The Steelers looked to be on their way to another score when, on first down at Carolina's 38, Roethlisberger fumbled the snap and Carolina recovered.

They got their score on their next series, Mendenhall's 1-yard run. Sanders' 35-yard reception over the middle and Miller's 19-yard catch to the 10 highlighted that eight-play scoring drive.

The Steelers scored again with 39 seconds left in the half. Suisham kicked a 29-yard field goal to end a 43-yard drive that got started when Wallace caught a 40-yard pass from Roethlisberger to the 15.

When Mike Goodson then fumbled the kickoff, Will Allen recovered at the 28, and the Steelers had another shot to score. They reached the 15, but Roethlisberger was sacked and then Suisham missed a 41-yard field goal wide to the right, his first miss with the Steelers after hitting his first 13 with them.

The one problem the Steelers had Thursday night is one that has dogged them all season -- scoring touchdowns inside the opponent's 20.

They were just 2 for 6 against Carolina and on two of those occasions did not score at all -- Suisham missed a field goal and they failed when they went for it on fourth-and-1 at the 5.

The Steelers reached the 5 in the third quarter but did not get in on that fourth-down play, a pass to Mendenhall.

They nearly did not score the second time they got inside the 5 in the third quarter.

A pass-interference penalty gave them a first down at the 1 and Mendenhall could not score on two runs up the middle. On third down, Roethlisberger sneaked between center and left guard for the touchdown and a 27-0 lead.

The Steelers were sloppy in the second half. A sack of Roethlisberger lost 7 yards back to the 2, forcing a punt from their end zone. Carolina converted a short series into a 27-yard field goal by John Kasay to avoid the shutout.

"We are far from perfect but we were good enough to win tonight," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said of his third playoff team in his four seasons as coach. "We'll just continue to look at the areas where we fall short and hopefully improve and push forward to next week."


For more on the Steelers, read the blog, Ed Bouchette On the Steelers at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com . First Published December 24, 2010 5:15 AM


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