Steelers Move Closer to AFC North Crown After Thumping Carolina 27-3

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PITTSBURGH (AP) - There was no drama, no surprises. The

Pittsburgh Steelers are closing in on a division title and a bye inthe first round of the playoffs, and the Carolina Panthers providedlittle resistance.

Ben Roethlisberger showed off Pittsburgh's deep passing game andthe Steelers cruised past the Panthers 27-3 on Thursday night.

"It's definitely playoff football right now," safety RyanClark said. "We want that bye, at least one game on our homefield."

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 Clevelandon Jan. 2. The Browns (5-9) could end the division race evenearlier than that if they upset the Ravens (10-4) at home onSunday.

"There's some hardware out there for us, the AFC North title,and that more than anything is what we're focused on," Steelerscoach Mike Tomlin said.

Roethlisberger found Mike Wallace on a 43-yard scoring play andEmmanuel Sanders on a 35-yard completion to set up RashardMendenhall's 1-yard touchdown run as the Steelers opened a 20-0halftime lead. Roethlisberger ended 22 of 32 for 320 yards and nointerceptions.

It didn't seem that close and it wasn't, not with Pittsburghoutgaining the Panthers (2-13) by 408-119 while controlling theline of scrimmage, the clock and a Jimmy Clausen-led Carolinaoffense.

"It's good to be in the clubhouse before everyone else thisweekend with a necessary win," Tomlin said.

It hasn't been much of a season for the Panthers, who have losteight of nine, and this wasn't much of a game.

Jonathan Stewart, who averaged 115 yards in his previous fourgames, was held to 71 yards by a defense that has allowed one100-yard rusher in 49 games.

"They're 2-13 for a reason, and you've got to keep them thatway," Clark said. "You don't want to give them any confidencethey can play it down to the wire, so we put it away early."

Carolina, the NFL's only winless team on the road, took theopening kickoff, drove to the Steelers 32 and chose to punt onfourth-and-6 as a disappointed Clausen (10 of 23, 72 yards) threwhis hands up in disgust.

"I thought offensively we came out fast, running the ball well,got a few first downs quick," Clausen said. "And just from there,I don't know what happened."

That was about it for the Panthers, who had zero net yards andno first downs from the end of the first quarter until the final 90seconds in the third.

"We've obviously had our struggles at that position," saidCarolina coach John Fox, who has used four quarterbacks in theNFL's worst-ranked offense. "That was pretty solid defense weplayed. Offensively, it wasn't very good."

Mendenhall ran for 35 yards on Pittsburgh's first play fromscrimmage, and that quickly set the tone. Roethlisberger then hitWallace for 15 yards and tight end Heath Miller for 20, leading toShaun Suisham's 26-yard field goal.

Carolina successfully challenged an apparent Roethlisberger toSanders 8-yard scoring pass play, with replays showing Sandersdidn't maintain control as he struck the ground.

That kept the Steelers out of the end zone, but it didn't takethem long to get there.

"We had a bunch of breakdowns, a bunch of big plays(allowed)," Carolina defensive end Charles Johnson said.

Bryant McFadden, who left later with a hip injury, intercepted aClausen pass to set up Roethlisberger's scoring pass to Wallacethat made it 10-0 early in the second quarter.

Wallace caught the ball in stride at the 33 and easily outracedtwo defenders to the end zone. He ended with four catches for 104yards in his sixth 100-yard receiving game, one off JohnStallworth's team record.

"I like where he is right now, but he is capable of more,"Tomlin said. "There's more out there for him."

Roethlisberger's 35-yard completion to Sanders on second-and-18led to Mendenhall's 1-yard TD run with 1:54 left before halftime.

"They were stacking the line of scrimmage to stop the run so,when you see that, you've got to take what they give you," Tomlinsaid of a passing game that outgained Carolina's 293-45. "Guys gotopen and Ben distributed the football to them."

About then, the fans were shifting their attention to the morecompetitive Penguins-Capitals game in Washington. Pascal Dupuis'decisive goal in Pittsburgh's 3-2 shootout win set off a definitebuzz in Heinz Field, which NHL ice specialist Dan Craig was waitingto convert into an outdoor rink for the Jan. 1 Winter Classic.

The conversion was to begin even before the Panthers left townfollowing their seventh consecutive road loss this season. Right oncue, it began to snow as the NHL officials began their work.

Roethlisberger, whose previously broken nose was bloodied on ahit in the first half, also scored on a 1-yard run in the thirdquarter as the Steelers spent much of the second half running theball before a fast-emptying stadium.

"We've got to find a way to finish games - we've got a lot ofyoung guys (on offense)," Roethlisberger said. "That's why it wasgood to keep us in there."

NOTES: The Steelers scored three touchdowns after having onlyfour on offense in their previous four games. ... Clausen, therookie from Notre Dame, has two TD passes and eight interceptions.... Roethlisberger is 12-1 at home against NFC teams. He has thrownone interception in six games. ... The Steelers have won after eachof their four losses this season. ... Carolina avoided its firstshutout since 2002 when John Kasay kicked a 27-yard field goal with8:29 remaining. ... Suisham connected twice but missed for thefirst time in his 13 attempts this season.

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