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AFC North title within Steelers’ grasp

PITTSBURGH – There was no drama, no surprise. The Pittsburgh Steelers are closing in on a division title and a bye in the first round of the playoffs, and the Carolina Panthers provided little resistance.

Ben Roethlisberger showed off Pittsburgh’s deep passing game and the Steelers cruised past the Panthers 27-3 on Thursday night.

“It’s definitely playoff football right now,” safety Ryan Clark said. “We want that bye, at least one game on our home field.”

Pittsburgh (11-4), bouncing back from Sunday’s 22-17 loss to the New York Jets, will wrap up the AFC North and the bye if it beats Cleveland on Jan. 2. The Browns (5-9) could end the division race earlier than that if they upset the Baltimore Ravens (10-4) at home on Sunday.

“There’s some hardware out there for us, the AFC North title, and that more than anything is what we’re focused on,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.

Roethlisberger found Mike Wallace on a 43-yard scoring play and Emmanuel Sanders on a 35-yard completion to set up Rashard Mendenhall’s 1-yard touchdown run as the Steelers opened a 20-0 halftime lead.

Roethlisberger ended 22 of 32 for 320 yards and no interceptions.

Pittsburgh outgained the Panthers (2-13) by 408-119 while controlling the line of scrimmage, the clock and a Jimmy Clausen-led Carolina offense.

“It’s good to be in the clubhouse before everyone else this weekend with a necessary win,” Tomlin said.

It hasn’t been much of a season for the Panthers, who have lost eight of nine, and this wasn’t much of a game.

Jonathan Stewart, who averaged 115 yards in his previous four games, was held to 71 yards by a defense that has allowed one 100-yard rusher in 49 games.

“They’re 2-13 for a reason, and you’ve got to keep them that way,” Clark said. “You don’t want to give them any confidence they can play it down to the wire, so we put it away early.”

Carolina, the NFL’s only winless team on the road, took the opening kickoff, drove to the Steelers’ 32 and chose to punt on fourth-and-6 as a disappointed Clausen (10 of 23, 72 yards) threw his hands up in disgust.

“I thought offensively we came out fast, running the ball well, got a few first downs quick,” Clausen said. “And just from there, I don’t know what happened.”

That was about it for the Panthers, who had zero net yards and no first downs from the end of the first quarter until the final 90 seconds in the third.

“We’ve obviously had our struggles at that position,” said Carolina coach John Fox, who has used four quarterbacks in the NFL’s worst-ranked offense. “That was pretty solid defense we played. Offensively, it wasn’t very good.”

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