Carolina Panthers at Pittsburgh Steelers
Thursday December 23, 2010 8:20 PM EST
Line: Pittsburgh -15
The 10-4 Pittsburgh Steelers hold the tie breaker over the 10-4 Baltimore Ravens, putting them in the driver’s seat in the AFC North for the time being. The way the Ravens look at the moment, the Steelers can’t afford any sort of a slip-up. They have two very winnable games coming up and finishing 12-4 would guarantee them a division title.
Their opponent this week is walking a different path. Salvaging any sort of respect and saving what jobs are still savable is the focus of the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers won last week when they played Arizona, bringing their win total to two.
The Panthers have Pittsburgh this week and Atlanta next week. Their team is riddled with injuries and there is uncertainty at nearly every position on both sides of the ball. They may not have any chance of beating the Steelers, but can they cover?
Keys to the Game:
The Panthers aren’t going to be able to run the ball against the Steelers, who give up 63.4 yards a game on the ground. Jonathan Stewart is averaging 115 yards in his last four games. With Mike Goodson also in the backfield, the strength of the Panthers clearly lies within their run game. They will likely see little to no production on the ground, as the Steelers are relentless up front.
Troy Polamalu is sitting out with an injury this week, which is horrible news for the Steelers. Polamalu is arguably the most important player on the entire roster. Not only is he a huge asset in pass coverage, he is instrumental against the run. The Steelers struggle when he is out of the lineup and will sorely miss him.
There is no substitute for his play making abilities, but that is probably exactly why the Steelers are not going to force the issue. Having him 100 percent in the playoffs is more important than having his services for games against the Browns and Panthers.
Steve Smith has been horrendous this season. He is on pace for 49 catches and 614 yards this season. Smith was once among the best deep threats in the NFL, but it appears his ship has sailed.
It is unclear what his future holds, but with a franchise that will likely undergo a serious makeover from top to bottom in the off season, Smith needs to use this opportunity to prove that he still holds some sort of value for the Panthers beyond this season.
The fact that there have been quarterback woes obviously needs to be taken into account, but Smith has not been himself this season, regardless of who is throwing the ball.
Rashard Mendenhall just hung up 100 on the New York Jets defense. He will see little to no resistance against the Panthers front this week and should be able to run at will. The Panthers will look to limit big plays by focusing on Mike Wallace deep down the field and keeping Mendenhall’s yardage under 100 yards. It’s a tall task, given the personnel in Carolina and the vicious run threat the Steelers pose.
Jimmy Clausen vs. Pittsburgh’s defense
This game will only get out of control if Jimmy Clausen plays erratically. There is a high chance of him being rattled, as he will be attacked by the Steelers front seven tirelessly. Clausen has yet to throw multiple interceptions in a game, but touchdowns are a rarity in the Panthers pass offense.
Clausen hasn’t reached 200 yards in a single game, but breaking that cycle is not as important as keeping the game manageable by playing it safe.
Dick LeBeau might not have the best safety in professional football at his disposal, but he certainly has to like his chances against the rookie quarterback. There are still a number of weapons that he is going to be able to hit Clausen with and you can expect Pittsburgh to be aggressive throughout.
The Steelers appear set to dominate the Panthers on both sides of the ball. They have lost three games at home, but they have all been to playoff caliber teams. Even so, the Steelers have only beaten three teams this season by the given spread. While the Panthers have lost by more than 15 five times this season, the absence of Polamalu leads me to believe the Steelers will not play their best football on Sunday.
The Steelers have hung up over 30 twice this season. If the Panthers can manage to put fourteen points on the board, they will likely cover. The Panthers have close to no shot at winning, but losing by less than 10 should be viewed as a moral victory for a team that has struggled so mightily this season.
The euphoric feeling created from that moral victory needs to last all the way until April, when the team will likely have the first overall pick in the draft.
Free NFL Pick: Carolina +15