PITTSBURGH -- Only a week after their season seemed in jeopardy, the Pittsburgh Steelers find themselves in a familiar late-season position: in first place, and in control.
The Steelers (8-5-1), doomed by turnovers in last week's humiliating loss to Houston, twice turned Carolina fumbles into Jerome Bettis touchdown runs to beat the Panthers 30-14 Sunday and seize control of the AFC North.
|Rodney Peete is roughed up by Jason Gildon (92). (AP)|
The race tightened last week, when the expansion Texans scored three defensive touchdowns in a 24-6 upset of the Steelers. On Sunday, the Pittsburgh defense made the pivotal plays in what essentially was a must-win game.
"We went into it thinking we can't lose another game, we can't afford it," linebacker Kendrell Bell said. "We need a three-game winning streak to carry us into the playoffs."
The Steelers forced four turnovers -- Carolina (5-9) has two or more turnovers in seven consecutive games -- to give a big lift to an offense that has only two unaided touchdown drives in its last three games.
"You can't do that against a playoff caliber team in their place," Carolina coach John Fox said.
Pittsburgh didn't score a touchdown without help after its opening possession, when Tommy Maddox led a 77-yard drive ended by his 11-yard touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress. Burress made six catches for 120 yards after dropping a half-dozen passes against Houston.
"I never doubted myself or questioned if I could play this game," Burress said. "I know people were looking to me and how I would respond, so I said, `Don't go out and try to do anything special, just be me and let the game come to me."'
Maddox, aware he might be benched if his turnover problems persisted, threw an interception that led to Rodney Peete's 6-yard touchdown pass to running back Dee Brown. But he was effective otherwise, going 20-of-33 for 209 yards.
Jeff Reed also kicked field goals of 36, 41 and 23 yards, two set up by long passes from Maddox to Burress. Burress' 47-yard catch with Deon Grant in coverage on third-and-10 led to the 23-yarder, which made it 23-14 with just over seven minutes remaining.
"They got turnovers and gave their offense a short field," Panthers cornerback Terry Cousin said. "It wasn't like their offense was a juggernaut."
The defense nearly was. A week after limiting Houston to 47 yards -- the fewest ever in the NFL by a winning team -- the Steelers were even better in the first half, holding the Panthers to zero yards, 6 yards rushing and minus-6 passing. All of Carolina's 131 yards came in the second half.
"They didn't hold Houston to 47 yards because Houston's bad," Carolina quarterback Rodney Peete said. "They get after you."
Linebacker Joey Porter said, "We were disappointed they got 100 yards. We set some high standards for this game, and we didn't want them to get 100."
A week after Steve Smith returned two punts for touchdowns in a 52-31 victory over Cincinnati, the Panthers' special teams helped Pittsburgh's offense more than their own. Smith fumbled a punt midway through the third quarter, with Brett Keisel recovering at the Carolina 18.
Bettis carried on the next three plays, scoring from the 9 to make it 20-7.
The touchdown proved big when the Panthers put together their only sustained scoring drive -- a bizarre one that included three coaches' challenges on as many plays before Brown scored from the 1 to cut the Steelers' lead to 20-14.
"It was a shame we wasted all that time and then they go ahead and score," Steelers coach Bill Cowher said.
But just when the Panthers were back in the game, Peete fumbled while being sacked and Aaron Smith recovered, and the Steelers turned that into Bettis' second scoring run, an 8-yarder.
- Peete sat out the second quarter after being shaken up on the scoring pass to Brown, with Chris Weinke being intercepted once during his three ineffective series.
- Hines Ward shook off a sore hamstring to make three catches, making him the first Steelers receiver with 100 receptions in a season.
- Bettis ran for 73 yards after being limited to 30 yards on 14 carries by Houston.
The Associated Press News Service
Copyright 2002, The Associated Press, All Rights Reserved