PITTSBURGH (AP) - No one needs to explain this math to the Pittsburgh Steelers: It's easier to get to the Super Bowl by winning two games rather than three.
On a short week with no real practice following a tough loss, the Steelers were determined not to get distracted and lose to the poor-record Carolina Panthers. Do that, and they might be adding an extra work week to their playoff schedule.
"It was huge for us," nose tackle Casey Hampton said following Pittsburgh's businesslike 27-3 victory on Thursday night. "If you get a bye, it gets you closer to the Super Bowl. Anything can happen in the playoffs, and you want to play the least games as possible."
Maybe that's why the Steelers (11-4) put away the Panthers (2-12) in about the least time possible. Ben Roethlisberger's deep throws resulted in a touchdown, set up another and pushed the Steelers into a 20-0 halftime lead, and the Panthers had no real chance after that.
Not with an offense that was outgained 408-119. Not with a defense that tightened up to stop the run, somehow overlooking that the Steelers' offense runs through Roethlisberger.
"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," coach Mike Tomlin said of a passing game that outgained Carolina's 293-45. "Guys got open and Ben distributed the football to them."
Mike Wallace scored on a 45-yard touchdown pass during his sixth 100-yard game this season, one off the Steelers' record. Emmanuel Sanders' 35-yard catch led to Rashard Mendenhall's 1-yard TD run and, with Shaun Suisham adding two field goals, the second half was largely irrelevant.
"I felt we did some really good things," said Roethlisberger, who was 22 of 32 for 320 yards and a 1-yard TD run. "We're always striving to get better and do some better things. Every day and every game, we get a little better."
Of course, winning their fifth in six games means the Steelers might eliminate a wild-card playoff game from their January calendar.
The Steelers, bouncing back from Sunday's 22-17 loss to the Jets, will wrap up the AFC North and the first-round bye if they beat 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," Tomlin said.
There wasn't much for the Panthers to take out of a game in which they had zero yards of offense from the end of the first quarter to the last 90 seconds of the third quarter.
"They're 2-13 for a reason, and you've got to keep them that way," safety Ryan 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."
Jonathan Stewart, averaging 115 yards in his previous four games, ran for 71 yards on 18 carries, but rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen finished 10 of 23 for 72 yards.
"We've obviously had our struggles at that position," said 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."
Clausen drove the Panthers to the Pittsburgh 32 on each of their first two drives, but neither produced any scoring - and that was about it for the rest of the game, other than a late John Kasay 27-yard field goal.
"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."
At least there's this: the Panthers own the NFL's worst record, which could translate into the top pick in the April draft.
Even before the Panthers had left town, Heinz Field didn't look the same. Within 90 minutes after the game ended, the goal posts and team benches had vanished as the NHL began building the outdoor hockey rink for the Capitals vs. Penguins Winter Classic on Jan. 1.
The way the Steelers see it, the NHL can take all the time they want. They don't plan on being back until a few weeks from now.
"We want to clinch the No. 2 seed and our division," said linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who still recalls last season's 13-6 loss to a one-win Browns team. "We have to take care of Cleveland. Last year, they took care of business on us. We have to make sure that doesn't happen."