PITTSBURGH - There was no drama, no surprises. The Pittsburgh Steelers are closing in on a division title and a bye in the first round of the playoffs, and the Carolina Panthers provided little resistance.
Ben Roethlisberger showed off Pittsburgh's deep passing game and the Steelers cruised past the Panthers 27-3 on Thursday night.
"It's definitely playoff football right now," safety Ryan Clark said. "We want that bye, at least one game on our home field."
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," Steelers 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 Pittsburgh outgaining the Panthers (2-13) by 408-119 while controlling the line of scrimmage, the clock and a Jimmy Clausen-led Carolina offense.
"It's good to be in the clubhouse before everyone else this weekend with a necessary win," Tomlin said.
It hasn't been much of a season for the Panthers, who have lost eight of nine, and this wasn't much of a game.
Jonathan Stewart, who 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.
"They're 2-13 for a reason, and you've got to keep them that way," Clark said. "You don't want to give them any confidence they can play it down to the wire, so we put it away early."
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.
"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 and no first downs from the end of the first quarter until the final 90 seconds in the third.
"We've obviously had our struggles at that position," said Carolina coach John Fox, who has used four quarterbacks in the NFL's worst-ranked offense. "That was pretty solid defense we played. Offensively, it wasn't very good."
Mendenhall ran for 35 yards on Pittsburgh's first play from scrimmage, and that quickly set the tone. 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.
"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 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.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
"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-18 led 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," Tomlin said of a passing game that outgained Carolina's 293-45. "Guys got open and Ben distributed the football to them."
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. Right on cue, it began to snow as the NHL officials began their work.
Roethlisberger, whose previously broken nose was bloodied on a hit in the first half, also scored on a 1-yard run in the third quarter as the Steelers spent much of the second half running the ball before a fast-emptying stadium.
"We've got to find a way to finish games - we've got a lot of young guys (on offense)," Roethlisberger said. "That's why it was good to keep us in there."
NOTES: The Steelers scored three touchdowns after having only four on offense in their previous four games. ... Clausen, the rookie from Notre Dame, has two TD passes and eight interceptions. ... Roethlisberger is 12-1 at home against NFC teams. He has thrown one interception in six games. ... The Steelers have won after each of their four losses this season. ... Carolina avoided its first shutout since 2002 when John Kasay kicked a 27-yard field goal with 8:29 remaining. ... Suisham connected twice but missed for the first time in his 13 attempts this season.
PFT: Defensive end finally finds a new team in San Diego — and for a honey of a deal that would be worth a max of $13.35 million.
PFT: Jets RB Mike Goodson was charged with five gun and drug counts Friday morning, after New Jersey State Police found the car he was riding in parked in the middle of Route 80 in Denville, N.J.
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