David Shaw column: Steelers pounded their chests

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 25, 2006

CHARLOTTE — The Panthers were already dead in the road Sunday, struggling to accept their football mortality in a good season gone bad.

So why did the Steelers insist on backing up and running them over a few more times?

“That’s just the way you’ve got to play,” linebacker Joey Porter said after Pittsburgh’s chest-pounding 37-3 win at Bank of America Stadium. “We’re fighting for our lives just like they are. If you have an opportunity to put a team away, you’ve got to finish the deal.”

In doing so the Steelers finished off Carolina, dropping the 6-8 Panthers with a resounding knockout punch and dousing the last of their flickering playoff hopes. Completing their schedule has been reduced to the equivalent of running out an infield fly.

“I’m stunned,” safety Mike Minter said in the morgue-like Carolina locker room. “I’ve been stunned for the last four weeks. One or two wins in those four weeks and we’re all right.”

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Instead, the injury-plagued Panthers are all wrong. In a season that began with high expectations but sprialed into despair, this was a low-water mark.

“We’re not very good right now,” Steve Smith indicated after making five catches for 56 yards. “I don’t think there are any words to describe it. Everything you don’t want to do in a game, we did today.”

Give Smith a nod for being honest. It’s been a frustrating second half of the season for Pro-Bowl receiver, who has routinely faced double-team coverages and stunt defenses.

“Everybody knows he’s their best player, their game-breaker,” Porter said. “If you want to beat Carolina, you focus on stopping Steve Smith. We just never let him get involved in the game.”

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It wasn’t just Smith who was handcuffed. For the second straight game the Panthers had no detectable running game, rushing for 43 yards on just 11 attempts. Quarterback Chris Weinke, subbing once again for the injured Jake Delhomme, passed for 170 yards — none longer than the 19-yard completion he threw to Smith in the second quarter — and was sacked five times.

“We couldn’t ever get into the groove,” Weinke said. “We couldn’t run the ball or play action. It seemed like there was always something that went wrong.”

Don’t look too hard for an explanation. Pittsburgh played steel-wall defense and damn-the-torpedoes offense. By the middle of the third period the game had transformed into a hearty round of batting practice.

“Guys were just going out there and having fun playing football,” said wideout Hines Ward. “That’s what you have to do. That’s what teams do.”

It’s what teams that still have a prayer of making the playoffs do.

“We had to do this,” noted linebacker James Farrior. “We were hungry. It wasn’t about delivering a knockout blow. We just wanted to play hard.”

The Panthers, on the other hand, just wanted to get out of there. This wasn’t so much a game as it was 60 minutes of assault-and-battery.

“They just kept plugging away,” said Minter, surveying the wreckage. “They made some plays. They scored some points. And after that it seemed like we couldn’t stop them. Our defense wasn’t very good.”

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So there you have it — the dying words of a team that stumbled out of the starting gate, gained its footing in midseason and fell flat on its face when it counted most.

“We’re not the same team we started the season with,” coach John Fox said, alluding to the team’s MASH-unit injury list. “But we aren’t the only team in the league going through that. It’s not an excuse. It’s reality.”

Minter offered a different take. “What it tells me,” he said, a polite smile masking his disappointment, “is that we’re not as good as we thought we were. We were prepared, we were ready to go, ready to make this happen. But somewhere along the line, we disappeared. We blacked out. We weren’t ourselves.”

Actually, they were. And they were dead in the road.

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Contact David Shaw at dshaw@salisburypost.com.

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