PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t know they’d officially made the playoffs when they left Heinz Field on Sunday night, surprise losers to the Jets in a game they probably didn’t need to win but certainly didn’t want to lose.
They learned only later that a computer determined they were in. There weren’t any known celebrations or popping of champagne corks.
“Why we play is to win our division,” wide receiver Hines Ward said. “We’ll win our division and take care of the things we control. And the good thing about it is we don’t need any help.”
No, the NFL schedule maker has given them all the help they need, serving up a Thursday night home game against the Carolina Panthers (2-12), owners of the NFL’s worst offense, worst passing game and worst record.
If the Steelers (10-4) beat Carolina and the Browns (5-9) on Jan. 2, they’ll win the AFC North and be seeded No. 2 in the playoffs, no matter what Baltimore (10-4) does against the Browns and Bengals (3-11).
That’s all the incentive the Steelers need to play their second game in five days, a challenge for a beaten-up team regardless of its opponent.
With safety Troy Polamalu (Achilles’) still out, the offensive line thinned by injuries, tight end Heath Miller recovering from a concussion and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger playing with a face shield protecting a broken nose and an oversized shoe guarding a still-healing foot, the Panthers could be exactly what the Steelers need to get well.
Coach Mike Tomlin tried motivating his players by pointing out the Panthers are younger and should be able to bounce back faster on short rest. His players merely laughed.
Carolina coach John Fox said, a one-time Steelers assistant under Chuck Noll, has been around the NFL much too long to let his players believe that.
“You always have to come up with something,” Fox said. “Tell Mike that was a good one.”
While anything is possible in the NFL — the Steelers lost to the one-win Browns in a Thursday night road game last season — Pittsburgh presents significant matchup problems for the Panthers, who have one strength but a whole lot of weaknesses.
Carolina is one of the NFL’s best running teams, with Jonathan Stewart averaging 115 yards and 5.9 yards per carry in his last four games. He has 270 yards in his last two.
The problem: Pittsburgh’s run defense is one of the best in league history, giving up an average of 63.4 yards per game. The Steelers have permitted one 100-yard rusher in 48 games, the equivalent of three seasons.
“It’s going to be tough,” Panthers center Ryan Kalil said. “They have a great front. … It’s tough, especially this week, because you don’t get to watch much film.”
The Steelers, 24th in pass defense, often have trouble defending against teams with strong passing games, but that’s certainly not Carolina.
The Panthers’ average of 149.3 yards passing is 32 per game fewer than any other team, and rookie Jimmy Clausen has seven interceptions but only two TD passes.
“They have guys that are just real hungry to play, make plays and play together,” Stewart said of Pittsburgh’s No. 3-ranked defense.
Also, Carolina is 0-6 on the road with four losses by double digits. And while Pittsburgh’s offense has produced only four touchdowns in four games, Carolina allows an average of 25 points.
So what’s for Pittsburgh to fear about this game, even though Carolina ended a seven-game losing streak by beating Arizona 19-12 on Sunday?
“They have amazing running backs,” safety Ryan Clark said. “They’re the type of team that wants to run the ball and stay close in the game and try to pull something off at the end. So there’s a lot to fear.”
What the Steelers probably worry about most is another injury to a key starter, just when they’re hopeful Polamalu and defensive end Aaron Smith (triceps) might be healthy for their first playoff game.
“It’s always important during the season that if you want to make a playoff run, to get hot at the right time,” Roethlisberger said, referring to bouncing back quickly from a 22-17 loss to the Jets. “We’re kind of waiting to see if that’s going to be the case or not.”
AP Sports Writer Mike Cranston in Charlotte, N.C., contributed to this report.