It's not the Super Bowl preview that some might have expected at the outset of the year, but Sunday's matchup between the Pittsburgh Steelers
and Carolina Panthers
at Bank of America Stadium projects as a heated battle nonetheless.
The reigning world champion Steelers cling to a fraction of life in the postseason race, after Bill Cowher's team followed up its dismal 2-6 start by winning four of its last five contests. Pittsburgh's 27-7 rout of the Cleveland Browns
last Thursday night kept it within striking distance in the AFC Wild Card race, though still behind leaders Cincinnati (8-5) and Jacksonville (8-5) as well as foremost at-large contenders the Jets (7-6), Kansas City (7-6), and Denver (7-6). Home-stretch meltdowns from a majority of the teams above are going to be necessary for the Steelers to sneak into the postseason and defend their title, and victories in a concluding three-game stretch that continues following Sunday's game with tough games against the Ravens (12/24) and Bengals (12/31) will be a must.
The road to the playoffs appears a touch more navigable for the Panthers, though the fact that Carolina has been playing poorly of late certainly speaks ill of the team's postseason prospects. The Panthers have lost five of their last seven, including three in a row, and are currently behind the 7-6 Giants, Eagles, and Falcons and 6-7 Vikings in the hunt for one of two NFC Wild Card slots. The schedule for John Fox's club won't do it any favors either, as Carolina follows up its home finale on Sunday with trips to meet fellow postseason hopefuls Atlanta (12/24) and New Orleans (12/31), two teams that have already defeated the Panthers this year.
Pittsburgh holds a 2-1 edge in its all-time series with Carolina, and has won each of its last two head-to-head meetings with the Panthers. The Steelers took a 30-14 home decision in the most recent matchup, in 2002, and also defeated Carolina during the 1999 campaign. The Panthers' only win in the series, an 18-14 victory in 1996, also marks the only meeting between the teams in Charlotte.
Cowher is 2-1 in his career against Carolina. The Panthers' Fox will be meeting both Cowher and the Steelers for the first time as a head coach.
STEELERS OFFENSE VS. PANTHERS DEFENSE
Seeking to build on the finest game of his young NFL career will be Pittsburgh running back Willie Parker (1199 rushing yards, 29 receptions, 13 TD) who ran over, around, and through the Browns last Thursday. Parker piled up a franchise-record 223 yards and a touchdown on 32 carries against Cleveland, breaking Frenchy Fuqua's 36-year-old team record of 218 yards. The North Carolina product now has five triple-digit games to his credit in '06, and has gone over 200 in the last two of those. Parker will be looking for his first back-to-back 100-yard games of the year. Najeh Davenport (179 rushing yards, 1 TD, 13 receptions) also received a fair amount of work in the Cleveland rout, was the bruiser carried a season-high 14 times for 62 yards and added a 21- yard catch out of the backfield. The Steelers are 14th in NFL rushing offense (120.2 yards per game) as Week 15 begins.
Parker will want to follow the same approach that the Giants' Tiki Barber did against the Carolina defense last week, when Barber broke out of a slump with 20 carries for 112 yards to help fuel a win. The Panthers are a middle-of-the- road 14th in the league in rushing defense (110.3 yards per game), and have received only hot-and-cold run-stopping production from their front seven. The high-priced defensive tackle tandem of Kris Jenkins (33 tackles, 2 sacks) and Maake Kemoeatu (31 tackles) has been average at best, and the play of linebackers Chris Draft (81 tackles, 4 sacks), Thomas Davis (80 tackles, 1.5 sacks), and Na'il Diggs (52 tackles) has been generally nondescript as well. Jenkins and Kemoeatu combined for eight tackles in a losing effort against the Giants, and Davis paced the LBs with seven stops.
Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (2952 passing yards, 15 TD, 20 INT) has not fully eliminated the mistakes that plagued him during the team's 1-6 stretch, but has made enough plays over the past five games to help cover up the miscues. Roethlisberger has eight touchdown passes and six INTs over the Steelers' 4-1 stretch, compared to seven TDs and 14 picks over his first seven starts of the year. "Big Ben" completed 11-of-21 passes for 225 yards and a score against Cleveland, also rushing for a TD and playing well despite the absence of No. 1 wideout Hines Ward (knee). Rookie Santonio Holmes (37 receptions, 1 TD) helped Roethlisberger out to the tune of four catches for 81 yards, while the blossoming Nate Washington (32 receptions, 4 TD) added 67 yards on a pair of grabs, including a 49-yard touchdown to open the scoring in the first quarter. Ward is listed as probable for this week. Tight end Heath Miller (29 receptions, 4 TD) did not have a catch against Cleveland, the first time all year he has been held out of the receptions column. Roethlisberger, who leads the NFL with 20 picks, has also been sacked a bloated 37 times.
Roethlisberger should be able to avoid the critical mistake against a Carolina defense that has just 11 interceptions all year, a figure that ranks near the bottom of the league. To make matters worse, opening day starting cornerbacks Chris Gamble (thigh) and Ken Lucas (hamstring) are both listed as questionable after missing the Giants game, meaning rookies Richard Marshall (63 tackles, 3 INT) and Dion Byrum (8 tackles) could be pressed into service as the starters on Sunday. That situation means safeties Shaun Williams (54 tackles, 1 INT) and Mike Minter (74 tackles, 1 INT) will be counted on a great deal. Williams led the Panthers with eight tackles and a forced fumble last week. In the pass rush, Carolina is desperate for greater production from defensive end Julius Peppers (53 tackles, 11 sacks), who has been held without a sack for four consecutive games. Neither Peppers nor opposite end Mike Rucker (37 tackles, 4.5 sacks) broke through to the Giants' Eli Manning in last Sunday's loss.
PANTHERS OFFENSE VS. STEELERS DEFENSE
The starter at the quarterback position for the Panthers could remain a mystery until Sunday afternoon, when either injured No. 1 Jake Delhomme (2598 passing yards, 15 TD, 11 INT) returns from a one-week absence or backup Chris Weinke makes his second consecutive start. Delhomme is listed as questionable on the injury report due to damaged ligaments in his right thumb, and had not practiced as of Thursday. Weinke's record as an NFL starter dropped to 1-16 in last Sunday's loss to the Giants, though the former Heisman Trophy winner did throw for a franchise-record 423 yards on 34-of-61 passing with a touchdown and three interceptions. Eight different players caught at least two passes for the Panthers, with third receiver Drew Carter (27 receptions, 3 TD) leading the way with a career-high eight catches for 144 yards and a touchdown. Starters Steve Smith (71 receptions, 6 TD) and Keyshawn Johnson (62 receptions, 4 TD) had five grabs each totaling 118 yards, and tight ends Kris Mangum (21 receptions, 1 TD) and Michael Gaines (10 receptions) had seven catches for 71 total yards. Mangum is questionable for this week with a hip problem. The Carolina line has allowed 24 sacks on the year, including two of Weinke last Sunday.
Whoever plays quarterback for the Steelers will be looking to attack a depleted Pittsburgh secondary, one that is expected to be without strong safety Troy Polamalu (knee) for a third straight week and now features just one member of its opening-night group of defensive backs. Against Cleveland, rookie Anthony Smith (17 tackles, 1 INT) and veteran Tyrone Carter (32 tackles, 2 sacks) were the starters at safety, with Bryant McFadden (43 tackles, 2 INT) and mainstay Deshea Townsend (33 tackles, 2 INT, 1 sack) at the corners. The group gave up 276 aerial yards to first-time starter Derek Anderson, but also got an interception from the free safety Smith and a team- best seven tackles from Carter. The pass rush remains the most feared piece of the Pittsburgh defense, with outside linebackers Joey Porter (46 tackles, 7 sacks, 2 INT) and Clark Haggans (69 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 1 INT) still explosive off the edge. Pittsburgh is in the NFL top 10 in sacks, despite not managing a sack against the Browns in Week 14.
Panthers running back DeShaun Foster (674 rushing yards, 2 TD, 25 receptions) returned to the lineup last week after missing the previous two contests with an elbow injury, but his presence was hardly a boon for the Carolina offense. Foster carried just eight times for 23 yards, and had less of an impact on the game than did rookie DeAngelo Williams (410 rushing yards, 24 receptions, 2 TD). Williams, who played well when Foster was on the shelf, caught four passes for 45 yards out of the backfield against the Giants. The first-round draft pick was less effective on the ground, where he managed just one net yard on a couple of carries. The Panther running game has been an overall disappointment this season, as it ranks just 21st in the league in rushing offense (102.1 yards per game).
Williams and Foster will be working against a Steelers defense that ranks fifth in the NFL against the run (94 yards per game) as Week 15 commences. The three-man front of Casey Hampton (32 tackles) at nose tackle and Aaron Smith (47 tackles, 3.5 sacks) and Brett Keisel (47 tackles, 4 sacks) on the edges has done a fine job all season, and inside linebackers James Farrior (104 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 INT) and Larry Foote (76 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 INT) have made numerous plays behind them. Farrior had seven tackles in the win over Cleveland, and Smith led Pittsburgh linemen with a trio of stops and a forced Derek Anderson fumble on a Browns drive late in the first half.
The Panthers are a sinking ship at the moment, while the Steelers have a salvage crew working feverishly to raise them to the surface. As far as both confidence and health go, Pittsburgh has the edge. The return of Ward this week will give the offense a boost, and the defense has already proven that it can make the requisite plays without Polamalu in the lineup. Carolina, meanwhile, hasn't done much well on either side of the ball all season, and there is little reason to expect the Panthers to magically arise from their slumber this week, even in a game that they need desperately. Sportsbooks Predicted Outcome: Steelers 15, Panthers 13