If there are questions about the Steelers' readiness for a run at the Super Bowl, they have been about the offense. Can it be explosive enough to keep up with Tom Brady and New England? Can it be efficient enough to score with opportunities against the Ravens, or win a muscle game with the Kansas City Chiefs?
The Pittsburgh offense looked sharp at times and wobbly at others Thursday night, in a 27-3 win over the Carolina Panthers (2-13). Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was shaking off tacklers all night and completing passes on the move to put the Steelers (11-4) in position for a first-round bye in the playoffs and a home postseason game.
If Cleveland beats the Ravens on Sunday, Pittsburgh wins the division. If the Steelers win their final game against the Browns, they still win the AFC North and lock up the conference's No. 2 playoff seed.
Roethlisberger completed 22 of 32 passes for 320 yards. He also fumbled twice.
• Roethlisberger came up a little woozy after taking a hit in the second quarter. His nose, which he recently had surgically repaired after he broke it against Baltimore, was bleeding and he briefly retreated to the Steelers' locker room.
• Pittsburgh tight end Heath Miller returned after missing two games with a concussion. That was a clear benefit to the Pittsburgh passing game against Carolina. Miller had five catches for 73 yards.
• The Steelers played without five-time Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu, who has an Achilles tendon injury. It was the second straight game Polamalu has missed. It would probably help if he could miss the season finale against the Browns, too, for another week of rest. The Steelers can clinch a first-round bye in the AFC playoffs if Cleveland beats Baltimore on Sunday. Polamalu leads Pittsburgh with six interceptions and is considered a strong candidate for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. He was injured returning an interception for a touchdown Dec. 12 against Cincinnati. Ryan Mundy started in his place Thursday.
• The Steelers came into the game with the best run defense in the NFL, yielding just 63.4 yards per game. The Panthers came into the game 12th in rushing offense averaging 116 yards per game. Carolina was producing 167 yards rushing per game in the last month. But the Panthers rushed for just 74 yards on the night.
• Pittsburgh entered game leading the NFL in scoring defense (15.7), while the Panthers stood last in the NFL in scoring offense (13.1). The final score makes sense then.
• Jimmy Clausen, the Panthers' rookie quarterback, got his first NFL win last week against the Cardinals. Thursday night, it was back to the bludgeoning for the Notre Dame kid. Clausen was sacked four times. He finished 10 of 23 passing for 72 yards.
• The one thing Clausen did often was throw in the direction of wide receiver Steve Smith. There has been some friction between the two -- and some of it has to do with Smith going long stretches without a chance at catching the ball. Clausen threw it that way plenty of times Thursday night, but the connection was not there. Smith finished with three catches for just 17 yards.
• John Fox, the Carolina Panthers coach, has not had a good season challenging plays on the field. He was 2 of 13 coming into the game throwing the red flag. Some of that is explained by the desperate situations his team has been in this season. The Panthers are 2-13 and Fox probably threw the challenge flag in some games with the idea, "What do I have to lose?" Well, Fox stopped a touchdown on the Steelers' first possession and went to 3 of 14. Pittsburgh Emmanuel Sanders did not control a ball at the goal line, but the play was first ruled a touchdown. It was overturned by Fox's appeal.
• The successful challenge by Fox continued the red-zone problems for the Steelers. Pittsburgh got a field goal out of the possession, but that is obviously not the goal. The Steelers rank 27th in the NFL getting touchdowns -- just 44.4 percent of the time -- inside the opponent's 20. They also failed to score a touchdown on another possession inside the Carolina 10 in the third quarter.
• Roethlisberger had talked about not trying to throw too many passes into the end zone. So what did he do? Threw the ball into the end zone time and again looking for touchdowns. This is an issue. If the Steelers meet up with New England in the AFC final, the Patriots are better finishers.
• Charles Johnson, the Panthers third-year defensive end, got a sack in the second quarter and another in the fourth quarter. It was his sixth straight game with a sack. The dump of Roethlisberger gave Johnson 11 sacks for the season. His play this year helped make up for the loss of Julius Peppers, who took off for Chicago in the offseason. Too bad the Panthers could not find a remedy for the losses of all the other veterans management let loose.