NFL: Steelers 37, Panthers 3

Published 12:00 am Monday, December 25, 2006

By Mike London

Salisbury post

CHARLOTTE — Pittsburgh’s Willie Parker sped for a 41-yard touchdown late in the third quarter to make the score 27-3, and disgruntled waves of Carolina Panthers fans bolted for the parking lot even quicker than Parker raced down the left sideline.

Thousands of Pittsburgh supporters modeling black and gold jerseys and carrying “Terrible Towels” poured into Bank Of America Stadium for the opening kickoff.

By the end of Pittsburgh’s 37-3 humiliation of the Panthers, Parker, who never put it together at North Carolina, had 132 rushing yards and rowdy Steelers fans had the whole place to themselves.

“It’s frustrating that fans give their tickets away and other teams get that many fans,” Carolina fullback Brad Hoover said. “But we have to deal with it. When you don’t play well, people don’t want to come watch.”

The weather was pleasant, but that was the only positive for the Panthers (6-8), who entered the season as a popular Super Bowl choice and essentially ended it on Sunday with a performance that would have embarrassed an expansion team. The Panthers, who still have two road games on the schedule, managed to make a 7-7 bunch of Steelers look like the Pittsburgh powerhouses of the 1970s.

“We got beat down right from the coin toss,” Carolina safety Mike Minter said.

Pittsburgh, the defending Super Bowl champ, has played well of late and won its third in a row. Once upon a time, the Panthers were 6-4, but this was their fourth straight loss.

With Jake Delhomme out with a thumb injury, Chris Weinke started at quarterback. He’s not exactly a good-luck charm. He’s now 0-17 as the Panthers’ starting QB.

Weinke was sacked five times and generated one first down in the first quarter when Carolina’s defense was stopping the Steelers three straight times and giving the offense every chance to break on top.

Carolina’s running game was again as empty as those blue seats in the upper deck. The Panthers netted 43 rushing yards, 29 on one play.

Santa Claus’ list of good girls and boys is far shorter than the Panthers’ injury list. Carolina lost defensive end Mike Rucker (knee), receiver (Drew Carter) and corner Dion Byrum (hamstring) yesterday. Guard Mike Wahle, tight end Kris Mangum, receiver Keary Colbert and running back Nick Goings were on the sidelines alongside Delhomme.

“It’s not a matter of guys giving up, but we’re just not a good football team right now,” Carolina coach John Fox said. “With the injuries, we’re just not the same team we were at the start of the season. That’s not an excuse; that’s reality.”

Ben Roethlisberger’s 1-yard run on the first play of the second quarter gave the Steelers a 7-0 lead. After a field goal by former North Carolina kicker Jeff Reed made it 10-0, James Harrison blocked a Carolina punt to set up another score.

Roethlisberger passed to Najeh Davenport for a backbreaking touchdown on third-and-goal from the Carolina 13.

John Kasay, who had missed a 50-yard field goal attempt, connected from 37 yards out to cut Carolina’s halftime deficit to 17-3.

The Panthers had the Steelers pinned on their 11-yard line early in the second half, but Roethlisberger converted on third-and-9. Then the Steelers kept the ball almost eight minutes and added a field goal.

It got progressively worse, with the Steelers getting a do-over on a muffed punt early in the fourth quarter because of a silly Panther penalty. Given a second chance, Santonio Holmes found a seam and galloped 65 yards for the touchdown that made it 34-3.

Rock bottom for the Panthers was reached when Pittsburgh’s Anthony Smith picked off a pass and gleefully high-stepped like a drum major.

His antics angered both Smith’s coaches and the Panthers, and Carolina guard Evan Mathis picked up a personal foul as Smith was tackled.

But that was the only fight the Panthers showed all day.

“It’s disappointing,” Hoover said. “We had everything to play for, but we didn’t hold up our end of the deal.”

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Contact Mike London at 704-797-4259 or mlondon@salisburypost.com.

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