CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP)—It may be too late, but the Pittsburgh Steelers are finally playing like last season’s Super Bowl team.
Willie Parker rushed for 132 yards and a touchdown and Ben Roethlisberger threw for a score and ran for another to lead Pittsburgh past the Carolina Panthers 37-3 on Sunday, delighting the thousands of their loyal fans who turned Bank of America Stadium into a virtual Steelers home game.
The Steelers (7-7) also blocked a punt and returned another for a touchdown as they won their third straight game and kept their faint playoff hopes alive. The Steelers, who started 2-6, have allowed 13 points in the past three games.
“We’ve been there before. We’ve played on the road in December and we’ve played on the road in January,” Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher said. “This football team knows that mind-set you have to have to win.”
It’s still going to be difficult for the Steelers to make the playoffs, but Carolina’s chances are virtually over after it turned in another stinker.
Chris Weinke, starting for the second straight week because of Jake Delhomme’s thumb injury, threw for 170 yards and an interception and was sacked five times for the Panthers (6-8), who lost their fourth straight game and rank as one of the NFL season’s biggest busts.
“It’s embarrassing. I feel bad for our owner, obviously, to have paid for the talent we displayed on the field,” receiver Keyshawn Johnson said.
The offensive line, without injured guard Mike Wahle (shoulder), gave Weinke little time to throw as he fell to 1-16 as a starter.
The Panthers were also limited to eight yards rushing in the first half and 43 for the game.
“We’re just not a very good football team right now and it showed today,” Panthers coach John Fox said.
But the Steelers are hitting stride behind Parker, who grew up nearby and was a little-used running back in college at North Carolina. He ran all over his local team, including a 41-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter to put it away.
“I never did anything in the state of North Carolina before, so you know how much that meant to me, coming back and playing the Panthers,” Parker said.
That touchdown run produced big cheers, with nearly half the crowd rooting for the Steelers and thousands waving yellow Terrible Towels.
The ratio grew when many Carolina fans left at halftime with Pittsburgh leading 17-3.
“It is frustrating that fans give their tickets away and the other teams get that many fans,” Panthers fullback Brad Hoover said. “But in reality we just have to deal with it. Right now we’re not playing very good football and when you don’t play well, people don’t want to come watch you.”
Pittsburgh’s lead grew to 27-3 on Parker’s run and 34-3 on Santonio Holmes’ 65-yard punt return early in the fourth quarter. In a telling sequence to sum up the Panthers’ season, Holmes’ touchdown came after Carolina recovered a muffed punt deep in Pittsburgh territory, only to have the play wiped out by a penalty.
In the fourth quarter, rookie Anthony Smith intercepted Weinke and high-stepped out of bounds while holding the ball by his ear. The hot dog move led to a shoving match between several players and a lecture to Smith from Cowher.
“I didn’t appreciate his gesture,” Cowher said. “We don’t do that around here. He understood that. You won’t ever see that again.”
Roethlisberger, who was 11-of-18 for 140 yards and went over 3,000 yards passing for the first time, was replaced by Charlie Batch late in the game.
After going three-and-out on their first three possessions, the Steelers took control.
Five plays after Rucker was helped off the field, Roethlisberger hooked up with Najeh Davenport for an 18-yard pass play on third-and-12. Roethlisberger followed with a 1-yard touchdown run off a bootleg on the first play of the second quarter.
Jeff Reed’s 19-yard field goal midway through the second quarter made it 10-0.
Three plays later Roethlisberger threw a screen pass to Davenport, who rumbled down the center of the field for a 13-yard touchdown and a 17-0 lead.
John Kasay’s 37-yard field goal in the final seconds of the first half gave the Panthers their only points.
“We allowed a team to come in here, that was playing for nothing, and ruin our season for us,” Johnson said. “That’s not what I signed up for.”
Notes:@ The Steelers have won 11 of their past 12 games against NFC teams. … Panthers tight end Kris Mangum (hip) and running back Nick Goings (shoulder) did not play. … Steelers S Troy Polamalu (knee) sat out his third straight game.