Steelers close in on North title
PITTSBURGH (AP) - So close to securing a division title, the Pittsburgh Steelers didn't need any tension, drama or surprises after a short week of preparation. The Carolina Panthers certainly couldn't provide any.
Ben Roethlisberger showed off Pittsburgh's deep passing game and the Steelers inched closer to a division title and a first-round playoff bye, beating the Panthers 27-3 on Thursday night.
Pittsburgh (11-4), bouncing back from Sunday's 22-17 loss to the Jets, will wrap up the AFC North and the bye if it beats Cleveland on Jan. 2. The Browns (5-9) could end the division race even earlier than that if they upset the Ravens (10-4) at home on Sunday.
"There's some hardware out there for us, the AFC North title, and that more than anything is what we're focused on," coach Mike Tomlin said.
Roethlisberger found Mike Wallace on a 43-yard scoring play and Emmanuel Sanders on a 35-yard completion to set up Rashard Mendenhall's 1-yard touchdown run as the Steelers opened a 20-0 halftime lead. Roethlisberger ended 22 of 32 for 320 yards and no interceptions.
It didn't seem that close and it wasn't, not with the Steelers outgaining the Panthers (2-13) by a more than 3-to-1 margin while controlling the line of scrimmage, the clock and a Jimmy Clausen-led Carolina offense.
The Panthers couldn't throw and, for a change, couldn't run while being outgained 408-119.
"It's good to be in the clubhouse before everyone else this weekend with a necessary win," Tomlin said.
Not much of a season for the Panthers, who have lost eight of nine, and not much of a game. Jonathan Stewart, who had averaged 115 yards in his previous four games, was held to 71 yards by a defense that has allowed one 100-yard rusher in 49 games.
Carolina, the NFL's only winless team on the road, took the opening kickoff, drove to the Steelers 32 and chose to punt on fourth-and-6, as a disappointed Clausen (10 of 23, 72 yards) threw his hands up in disgust. That was about it for the Panthers, who had zero net yards and no first downs from the end of the first quarter until the final 90 seconds in the third.
Mendenhall ran for 35 yards on Pittsburgh's first play from scrimmage. Roethlisberger then hit Wallace for 15 yards and tight end Heath Miller for 20, leading to Shaun Suisham's 26-yard field goal.
Carolina successfully challenged an apparent Roethlisberger to Sanders 8-yard scoring pass play, with replays showing Sanders didn't maintain control as he struck the ground.
That kept the Steelers out of the end zone, but it didn't take them long to get there.
Bryant McFadden, who left later with a hip injury, intercepted a Clausen pass to set up Roethlisberger's scoring pass to Wallace that made it 10-0 early in the second quarter.
Wallace caught the ball in stride at the 33 and easily outraced two defenders to the end zone. He ended with four catches for 104 yards in his sixth 100-yard receiving game, one off John Stallworth's team record.
Roethlisberger's 35-yard completion to Sanders on second-and-18 led to Mendenhall's 1-yard TD run with 1:54 left before halftime.
About then, the fans were shifting their attention to the more competitive Penguins-Capitals game in Washington. Pascal Dupuis' decisive goal in Pittsburgh's 3-2 shootout win set off a definite buzz in Heinz Field, which NHL ice specialist Dan Craig was waiting to convert into an outdoor rink for the Jan. 1 Winter Classic.
The conversion was to begin even before the Panthers left town following their seventh consecutive road loss this season.