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Old 12-18-2006, 04:33 AM   #1
lamberts-lost-tooth
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Default Steelers playoff hopes still alive

By Scott Brown
TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Monday, December 18, 2006


CHARLOTTE -- The fans, at least the ones who didn't head for the nearest exit after showering the home team with a few more boos, waved Terrible Towels and sang, "Here we go Steelers, here we go!"
They started celebrating early in the fourth quarter, because a hostile takeover of Bank of America Stadium on Sunday didn't occur only in the stands.

Willie Parker made a triumphant return to his home state, rushing for 132 yards and a touchdown. That, coupled with suffocating defense and superb special teams play, added up to a 37-3 victory over the Carolina Panthers in front of an announced crowd of 68,946.

The Steelers employed their signature brand of football with such success that there wasn't much to dissect following their demolition of the Panthers, leaving coach Bill Cowher and his players to ponder the significance of getting back to .500.

"It doesn't mean anything," Cowher said after his team improved to 7-7 and sent the Panthers (6-8) to their fourth consecutive loss.

The Steelers still need a lot to happen to make the playoffs - first and foremost they have to win Sunday against Baltimore and again in their regular-season finale at Cincinnati - but they are still alive.

Since falling to 4-7 after being dumped by the Ravens, the Steelers have reeled of three consecutive wins and allowed just one touchdown during that stretch.

A defense that sacked Carolina quarterback Chris Weinke five times controlled the game from the outset. The Steelers were determined not to let Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith beat them. He caught five passes but gained only 56 yards.

The offense got going after a slow start and did well enough that many of the starters didn't play in the fourth quarter.

Parker's 41-yard touchdown burst near the end of the third quarter put him over 100 yards -- a first on the road this season.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger didn't put up big numbers (11 of 18 for 140 yards). But he again made timely completions on third down and stayed patient.

As a result, he didn't throw an interception, for the second consecutive game.

"It was a game of feeling each other out," said Roethlisberger, who threw a touchdown pass and ran for another score. "They got to me a couple of times on third downs early. Then, once we finally converted (a first down), we kind of rolled with it."

An offensive line that has been criticized this season pushed the Panthers around and allowed the Steelers to move the ball almost at will in the second and third quarters.

Cowher didn't hesitate to say the Steelers are playing their best football of the season, and the improvement they have made in special teams may be why.

James Harrison blocked a punt with one hand, leading to a touchdown in the second quarter. Santonio Holmes finished off the Panthers early in the fourth quarter when he returned a punt 65 yards for a touchdown.

The rookie's touchdown came after a penalty on the Panthers nullified what would have been a lost fumble by Holmes.

It was that kind of afternoon for the Steelers.

They received some much-needed help from the Tennessee Titans, who beat the Jacksonville Jaguars, guaranteeing the Steelers won't be eliminated from postseason contention for at least another week.

The Steelers might not be quite ready to figure out what has to happen for them to make the playoffs, if for no other reason than it would be a time-consuming task.

"I started last week doing it," inside linebacker Larry Foote said, "but there's so many what-ifs. Hopefully after this week it will become clearer for us."
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