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Both teams will look to keep their slim playoff chances alive Sunday when they meet at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.
Pittsburgh (6-7) beat Cleveland 27-7 in its last game on Dec. 7 for its fourth victory in five games. The Super Bowl champions, however, may have cost themselves a chance at defending their title by dropping six of their first eight contests.
The Steelers trail two 8-5 teams that beat them this year—Jacksonville and Cincinnati—in the AFC wild-card race. Denver, Kansas City and the New York Jets are 7-6, while Buffalo and Miami are tied with the Steelers at 6-7.
“Until they tell us we’re done, we’re going to try to win all three games,” linebacker Joey Porter said. “We’ll try to get to 9-7 and see where that gets us.”
The Panthers (6-7), on the other hand, lost their third straight last Sunday, falling 27-13 to the New York Giants. The defeat dropped them a game behind New York, Philadelphia and Atlanta, who are tied in the NFC wild-card hunt.
Carolina tried to remain optimistic following the loss.
“You know, 9-7, that can give you a shot,” safety Mike Minter said. “That’s the only thing we can go off of. Are we out? No. Does it look slim? Yes. We still have three games left and we can’t fold it up.”
Carolina’s Chris Weinke made his first start since October 2002 in place of the injured Jake Delhomme and threw for a team-record 423 yards against the Giants, but had three second-half interceptions.
“I’d like to have those interceptions back,” Weinke said. “To me, it doesn’t matter how many yards you throw for. I would have been the happiest quarterback in the league today if I would have thrown for 80 yards and we won the game.”
Weinke will probably be called into duty again this weekend. Delhomme, who missed his first game in four seasons because of ligament damage in his right thumb, is listed as doubtful.
Carolina has plenty of other injuries to worry about.
Cornerbacks Ken Lucas and Chris Gamble both missed the Giants game with hamstring injuries, forcing rookie Richard Marshall and Christian Morton to start in their place. Morton then suffered a hamstring injury five minutes into the game and had to be replaced by undrafted rookie Dion Byrum.
Morton was placed on injured reserve, but Lucas and Gamble are listed as probable.
“I just want to get out there on the field and play,” Lucas said. “It’s been a very hard time for me not to be able to get out there, for us to lose three weeks in a row with all of the talent we have on this team.”
The Panthers ran for a season-low 45 yards last week despite the return of running back DeShaun Foster, who had missed two straight games with an elbow injury.
“Weinke threw for a lot of yards, but offensively we didn’t put up enough numbers to help the defense,” said receiver Steve Smith, who has 1,025 receiving yards despite missing the first two games of the season. “We still got to go in there and play and hopefully guys will make some mistakes on the opposite teams to assist us.”
The Panthers, who allowed New York’s Tiki Barber to run for 112 yards, will need to find a way to slow down Pittsburgh’s Willie Parker. Parker ran for 223 yards against the Browns, setting the single-game franchise record.
Parker, who signed as an undrafted rookie in 2004, ran for 213 yards against New Orleans on Nov. 12 and is the only Pittsburgh player to post two 200-yard games in one season.
“It means a lot, I’m not going to sit here and say it don’t,” said Parker, who also became the first Steelers running back since Jerome Bettis in 2000-01 with consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. “I came a long way.”
Parker could pose a problem for a Carolina defense that is allowing 110.3 rushing yards per game. Pittsburgh, which is 21-6 after Dec. 1 since 2001, outgained Cleveland 304-18 on the ground and had 528 total yards, its fifth game this season of 450 or more.
The Steelers’ defense also turned in a second straight strong performance one week after a 20-3 win over Tampa Bay.
“We’re playing better, no question about it,” coach Bill Cowher said. “I like the way we’re playing.”
Steelers receiver Hines Ward (knee) and safety Troy Polamalu (knee), who each missed the last two games, are listed as questionable for this weekend. Receiver Cedrick Wilson (high ankle sprain) is doubtful.