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Steelers again look superior against an equally mediocre team in Week 15

For the third time in a month, the Steelers dominated an equally inept opponent on the road, one that had more at stake, in 24-16 win over the Panthers.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Carolina Panthers Photo by Eakin Howard/Getty Images

For the third time in a month, the Steelers, who came into the day at 5-8 and clinging to their playoff hopes like a hero clinging to the side of a cliff in (insert any action movie ever made here), took on an equally inept foe with more at stake.

That’s right, the Panthers, also at 5-8, came into Sunday’s game with still a great chance to claim the prize that is the “Well, someone has to win it” NFC South crown.

For the third time in a month, this game took place on the road, with the Panthers hosting the action at Bank Of America Stadium.

For the third time in a month, this was a defacto home game for the road team, as the black-and-gold-clad faithful dominated the stands.

And for the third time in a month, the Steelers dominated from start to finish in a 24-16 win to improve to 6-8.

Much like the 24-17 victory over the Colts on Monday Night Football followed by the 19-16 win over the Falcons six days later, the score didn’t necessarily reflect a dominant win by Pittsburgh on Sunday afternoon, but your eyes certainly did.

So did the box score.

The Steelers won in the battle for yards, 325-209; first downs, 22-12; and time of possession, 36:11-23:49.

After a week-long layoff courtesy of the Ravens' defense, the Steelers resumed their employment of an effective ground game, rushing for 156 yards, including 86 on 24 carries by the suddenly menacing and powerful (and healthy) Najee Harris. Harris showed off his menace, power, and burst, all of which have been on full display since the bye (perhaps because of his return to health) on a seven-yard touchdown run that capped off Pittsburgh’s first offensive series of the game and gave the “road” team a 7-0 advantage.

Make no mistake, Harris has looked his best in recent weeks when he’s been complemented nicely by Jaylen Warren. Sunday’s game was no exception, as the rookie running back out of Oklahoma State rushed for 38 yards on 11 carries and gave Pittsburgh a 14-7 second-quarter advantage on a tenacious two-yard touchdown plunge.

But the most impressive drive of the day—maybe the most impressive drive since before anyone knew who Tom Brady was back in 2001—occurred on the Steelers opening possession of the third quarter, when they took the second-half kickoff and then proceeded to march 91 yards on 21 plays while consuming 11:43 of game clock. The drive may have meant nothing had it not ended with a touchdown, which it did, thanks to Mitch Trubisky, who capped it off with a one-yard quarterback keeper to give the Steelers a 21-7 lead.

Yes, the drive was tainted by an unsportsmanlike penalty on receiver Diontae Johnson, who managed to make his most impressive play of the season—he picked up a first down after eluding multiple Panthers defenders on a short reception on third and six—and still peeve off Steelers fans everywhere (not to mention his head coach) by taunting the nearest Carolina defensive back in the area. That play turned a first and goal from the seven into a first and 10 from the 22 (and not a first and goal from the 22—thankfully), but the offense just continued to march forward until it reached paydirt.

Trubisky, who completed 17 of 22 passes for 179 yards and no touchdowns or interceptions, looked crisp and decisive and played the quarterback position about as well as anyone has for the Steelers in 2022.

As for the defense, it was equally impressive. After surrendering a combined 361 rushing yards to its previous two opponents, both of whom were really good in that area, Teryl Austin’s unit smothered the rushing attack of a Panthers team that had been thriving in that department in recent weeks. Carolina rushed for a measly 21 yards on 16 carries, as the Steelers were so effective at stopping the run, one had to wonder why the Panthers even tried to do it that many times.

There was the matter of that boneheaded unsportsmanlike penalty on special teamer Marcus Allen with the Panthers facing a fourth and 27 after back-to-back sacks by Alex Highsmith and Cam Heyward (who looked like Mean Joe Greene on the play) to close out the third quarter, but you’ll have that.

I mean, it was a bizarre penalty—Allen stuck his business in the Panthers’ special teams huddle during the commercial break—which cost Pittsburgh three points, but only three points to make it 21-10, visitors.

What was Allen thinking? I don’t know, but this is the kind of thing that mediocre-to-worse teams often do, which is why you can never truly relax while watching them.

Speaking of which, the defense survived another costly penalty later in the fourth quarter—this time from one of its own—when cornerback Cam Sutton was called for pass interference which gave Carolina a first and goal from the four. Thankfully, a fine goal-line stand ensued, and the Panthers could only draw to within eight points.

That was effectively the game, as the offense went on another time-consuming drive and ultimately took a 24-13 lead on a Chris Boswell field goal with roughly a minute to go.

It was a fine win, one that still has the Steelers in 13th place in the AFC, behind the rest of the AFC North, the entire AFC East, three teams in the AFC West, and two teams in the AFC South.

Meanwhile, the Panthers, now 5-9, are currently in second place in the NFC South.

Oh well.

While the Steelers' postseason hopes are all but gone, it’s good to know that they’re still good enough to dominate equally mediocre teams with much more on the line.

What does that mean? It’s hard to say at this point, but it’s sure better than the alternative.