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Old 12-18-2006, 04:23 AM   #1
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Default Lopsided victory keeps faint playoff hopes alive

Monday, December 18, 2006
By Ed Bouchette
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It may be too little too late, but what the Steelers have done by winning five of their past six games beats whatever occurred through the first half of their season.

"It was fun, man," defensive end Brett Keisel said after a 37-3 clubbing of Carolina, whose fans started booing in the second quarter and did not let up. "It was fun out there today."

That's what happens when you block a punt, return another for a touchdown, have no turnovers, lose just 10 yards in penalties, sack the quarterback five times, intercept a few passes and have Willie Parker rip through another defense, this time for 132 yards.

It also took them nearly three months, but the Steelers officially are no longer losers. They climbed back to .500 for the first time since they were 1-1 Sept. 18 by winning three games in a row to go 7-7.

"It's been a long time," said receiver Hines Ward, returning to lead the Steelers with four receptions after missing the past two games because of a knee injury. "When you're winning, you're always having fun. The expression on guys' faces out there today, that's what it's all about -- everybody making plays."

Ward made the first important play for them, and it was all downhill for the Steelers after that. They had no first downs after three series when quarterback Ben Roethlisberger lined up his offense at its 43 for a third down late in the first quarter, needing 4 yards.

Ward said, "I kept telling Ben, 'Look for me to get it started. Let me try to make a play.' "

Roethlisberger zipped a pass along the sideline that Ward caught for 9 yards and a first down.

"People look at big plays as 50-yard caches," Ward said, "but converting a third down to get your offense in rhythm is a big play. We got in a rhythm and went down and scored."

And scored, and scored again. Roethlisberger completed another third-down pass to Najeh Davenport to the 1, then ran a 1-yard bootleg around right end and scored himself for a 7-0 lead.

The next series ended on Jeff Reed's 19-yard field goal and, after James Harrison became the first Steeler to block a punt in the past four seasons, Davenport took a screen pass 13 yards to score his second touchdown of the season and the rout was on.

Reed kicked two more field goals from 45 and 26 yards, but the two most exciting plays of the game came in the second half for the Steelers.

Parker, on the heels of a Steelers-record 223 yards the previous week, ran off left tackle and bounced through a hole the size of Nebraska created by tight end Heath Miller and guard Alan Faneca and wasn't caught. He ran 41 yards into the end zone near the end of the third quarter.

While many teammates mobbed Parker, coach Bill Cowher ran onto the field to greet Miller and the offensive line.

"Everyone's congratulating Willie," Cowher said. "And to me, [you should] congratulate the guys who opened up that hole."

The other dazzling play came from rookie Santonio Holmes when he returned a punt 65 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter, right after he fumbled away a punt. He was rescued and his turnover did not count when the Panthers were penalized because Dion Byrum ran out of bounds and then back in while covering the punt. It also helped ease the fact that Holmes' 8-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter was overturned on a replay challenge.

"I fumbled the ball and I was just looking forward to coming back and making another play,'' Holmes said of his first NFL return for a touchdown, his second overall.

After that touchdown gave the Steelers a 34-3 lead, Cowher called off the dogs when rookie safety Anthony Smith intercepted his second pass in two games. He sent backup quarterback Charlie Batch into the game and also sat down Parker and fullback Dan Kreider.

The Steelers' defense, which has allowed only 13 points in the past three games, sacked backup quarterback Chris Weinke, starting for injured Jake Delhomme, five times. Keisel led the way with 1.5. Rookie Brett Basanez replaced Weinke late in the game and had a fade pass intercepted by cornerback Ike Taylor, who had so many problems with that kind of pass early in the season when he was starting.

Steve Smith, called by Cowher perhaps the best receiver in the league last week, caught five passes for just 56 yards.

John Kasay, who missed a 50-yard field goal try in the first quarter, kicked a 37-yard field goal with four seconds left in the first half for the only points for Carolina, whose playoff hopes scooted under a 6-8 record.

The Steelers were concerned about a fierce Carolina front that included end Julius Peppers and his 11 sacks. Roethlisberger was sacked three times, all in the first half. He did not have to risk much after the Steelers took a 17-3 halftime lead. He threw 18 times, completing 11 for 140 yards and, for the second consecutive game, no interceptions.

"The best way to play against Julius Peppers is not to throw the ball too many times," Cowher said.

The Steelers remain alive, albeit barely, for a wild-card playoff spot and can only keep winning and hope to beat the kind of odds that face Powerball players.

"We can't be mad at nobody but us. We put ourselves in this situation," Porter said. "The tough thing about it is having your playoff hopes in somebody else's hands."
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