Steelers have extra motivation
By F. Dale Lolley, Staff writer dlolley@observer-reporter.com

PITTSBURGH - The Steelers get their Christmas gift a couple of days early when they host the hapless Carolina Panthers tonight at Heinz Field.

After crawling into the playoffs "on their belly," as coach Mike Tomlin put it earlier in the week, backing into the playoffs despite a 22-17 loss to the New York Jets on Sunday, the Steelers (10-4) get what should be the NFL equivalent of a gimmee against a Carolina team that has stumbled to a 2-12 record, the worst in the league.

[HIGH-LIGHT]And by playing tonight instead of this weekend, the Steelers could get Christmas weekend off, another bonus.

All that's needed to get the weekend off is a win.

"Hopefully. It depends on how we do," said Steelers linebacker James Farrior.

And would Tomlin play the Grinch and make the team practice on Christmas if they lose?

"He might. I would, if I was a coach," Farrior said.[/HIGH-LIGHT]

If that isn't enough motivation for the Steelers, there's this: If Pittsburgh wins its final two games - tonight and at Cleveland on Jan. 2 - it secures the AFC North Division title and first-round bye in the playoffs.

"That doesn't happen if we don't take care of business this week and then next week," Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said.

Given what Carolina will bring to Heinz Field, a loss by the Steelers would rank among the biggest upsets in team history.

With just eight touchdown passes and 19 interceptions, Carolina's pass offense has been nearly non-existent. Rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen, who has started eight games, has only two TD passes in 243 pass attempts. He's also thrown two interceptions that have been returned for scores.

The Steelers expect the Panthers to run with backs Jonathan Stewart and Mike Goodson in an attempt to take the pressure off Clausen. Stewart has 668 rushing yards rushing and Goodson 435.

"I definitely know that they've got two good running backs and the quarterback is young," said Farrior. "They don't want to put too much on his plate. It sounds good for us, but we've still got to go out there and execute."

It sounds good for the Steelers because they lead the NFL in rushing defense, allowing 63.4 yards per game. But Pittsburgh allowed a season-high 106 yards to the Jets - only the second time all season an opponent has rushed for more than 100 yards against the Steelers.

"We feel like we didn't play our best run defense last week. We've got something to prove this week," Farrior said.

They've had a short week to resolve those issues, but Carolina hasn't had much time to prepare Clausen for the Steelers' blitzing defense.

"It's hard to prepare for our defense, regardless of who you are. Hopefully, we can bounce back and put together a good one," Roethlisberger said.

If that happens, a division title and a bye in the first round of the playoffs will be just one win away.

[HIGH-LIGHT]Odds and end zones[/HIGH-LIGHT]

Strong safety Troy Polamalu will miss his second consecutive game with a sore Achilles' tendon. ... Tight end Heath Miller is expected to play after missing two games with a concussion. ... The Steelers are 3-1 against the Panthers, including 2-0 in Pittsburgh. ... Tomlin is 11-4 record against the NFC.