The Steelers want desperately to snag the No. 2 playoff seed in the AFC so they can rest their lame and weary, and they'd love to get that all accomplished this weekend, starting with the Thursday night game against Carolina at Heinz Field.
"It's very important," linebacker James Farrior said. "We've got guys banged up right now, guys fighting through just to make it to the end of the season. Having a bye week is definitely an advantage."
If they beat the Panthers on Thursday and Baltimore loses at Cleveland on Sunday, that would give Pittsburgh the AFC North Division and no worse than the No. 2 seed. Not only would it give the Steelers a playoff bye, but the Jan. 2 game in Cleveland would be virtually meaningless, and Pittsburgh could rest its wounded for two full weeks.
"It's something you want to have," said Farrior, at 35 having a good bounce-back season. "You don't want to go in having to play all of them, but if you have to, you have to."
The Steelers would love to rest players such as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (broken nose, broken foot), 35-year-old tackle Flozell Adams (ankle), Troy Polamalu (Achilles), and Hines Ward and a few other older players like Farrior, Brett Keisel and even Rashard Mendenhall.
"The division title is still obtainable for us, so we have to go out here and win these two games," Farrior said.
The Steelers and Ravens are tied at 10-4, but Pittsburgh would win the tiebreaker -- best record within the division -- if the teams remain tied. Kansas City could catch the Steelers for No. 2 only if Pittsburgh loses its final two games.
That's unlikely to happen. The Steelers are heavy favorites to beat the 2-12 Panthers, who start rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen, who has the league's worst passer rating at 59.1 and runs the league's least-productive passing offense.
The Steelers expect the Panthers to run it as often as they can with Jonathan Stewart and Mike Goodson. The problem for Carolina is the Steelers have the best run defense in the NFL by far, allowing an average of just 63.4 yards per game.
"When you look at them on offense, you know what they're going to try to do -- and that's run the ball. They run the ball against everybody they face -- good defenses, bad defenses, doesn't matter," Farrior said. "They're going to force that run. That's a big challenge for our defense, that's what we love to do. We didn't feel like we played our best run defense last week, and we have something to prove this week."
Pittsburgh has not blown a division lead in the final month of the season in 20 years. The only time the Steelers lost a late lead came in 1990, when they went into the final weekend with a one-game lead in the old AFC Central, lost at Houston and did not make the playoffs.
5th meeting. Steelers lead, 3-1. The Steelers are 2-0 against Carolina in Pittsburgh, making it the second straight opponent coming to Heinz Field without a win in the Steel City. The last time the teams played, the Steelers won 37-3 in Carolina in 2006, which was the third-to-last game Bill Cowher coached and his second-to-last victory.
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