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The Carolina Panthers are just going to be thrilled to be playing on national television in what really should be the second to last game in the marriage between them and Head Coach John Fox. However, if they can play the spoiler role against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field on Thursday Night Football, they could throw a tremendous monkey wrench into the works for the race for the postseason in the AFC.
Matchup: Carolina Panthers @ Pittsburgh Steelers
Date: Thursday, December 23rd, 8:20 ET
Location: Heinz Field, Pittsburgh, PA
Game Line: Pittsburgh -15
Panthers Notes: There's no secret about the fact that the Panthers are going to struggle offensively in this game just as they have for the majority of the season. This is a team that ranks dead last in the NFL in total offense at 266.1 yards per game, and there really isn't a team that is anywhere near a number like that. Carolina also ranks dead last in passing yards at 149.3 yards per game and scoring at 13.1 points per game. This is a team that has only scored more than 19 points twice all season long, which is really bad news for a club that has also given up at least 20 in all but two games. Without a doubt, this is the worst team in the NFL and is a squad that has the worst game plan possible for trying to beat the Steelers. Don't blame Fox, though. He really just doesn't have a quarterback to work with, and it's virtually impossible to try to win games in this league against anyone, let alone a team that has one of the most ferocious 'D's in the game when you don't have a signal caller. QB Jimmy Clausen doubled his touchdown output for the season last week by throwing a TD pass in the 19-12 win over the Arizona Cardinals. He has thrown for just 1,304 yards and two scores against seven picks on the season. Carolina only has 15 offensive touchdowns to show for 14 games worth of work, and obviously, just one TD per game isn't going to get the job done in this one. If there is a bright spot, it is that the ground game really does a nice job on a regular basis, but of course, this unit isn't likely to really get anything going against a team that averages allowing less than 70 yards per game on the ground. RB Jonathan Stewart has rushed for 668 yards and a pair of scores this year, while his new backup, RB Mike Goodson has 435 yards and three trips to the end zone. RB DeAngelo William has been placed on IR, but it is still hard to think that he and Stewart combined won't even rush for what each of them did last year when they were both 1,100+ yard backs.
Steelers Notes: Whereas Carolina knows a loss will lock up the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft this coming year, the Steelers know that they are two wins away from punching their ticket to the postseason with a bye in the first round of the playoffs. A spot in the tournament for the Lombardi Trophy was ensured last week in a loss to the New York Jets, but Head Coach Mike Tomlin knows that the task to win in the playoffs on the road isn't going to be easy even though the team has won a Super Bowl in recent years from the No. 6 seed. Winning the AFC North is of paramount importance, so this game cannot be overlooked. The big question is going to be whether S Troy Polamalu suits up or not. The 'D' really didn't play that poorly in the loss to the Jets, but memories of last season's loss in games just like this one without Polamalu in the lineup have to be dancing in the heads of all of the fans in the Steel City. With the former USC Trojan in the lineup for most of the season, this defense has been absolutely frightening, allowing 291.8 yards per game, just 63.4 of which come on the ground. The offense is finally starting to get in some sort of rhythm now that QB Ben Roethlisberger has been in the lineup for over half of a year after sitting on the sidelines suspended for the first four games of the year. RB Rashard Mendenhall became the first man to rush for at least 100 yards against the New York Jets in 26 tries last week, and as a result, he moved up the ladder in the chase for the rushing title in the NFL. Roethlisberger has thrown for 2,600 yards this year, and WR Mike Wallace is glad to see him back in the fold. Wallace has one of the highest yards per catch averages in the NFL at 19.8, and he became a 1,000 yard receiver last week and now has 1,048 yards and eight TDs on the campaign.
The Final Word: If Polamalu isn't in the lineup, there really is a chance for Carolina to make this game competitive. This is a bit of a sandwich game for the Steelers off of the loss to the Jets with the Cleveland Browns and the playoffs on deck. Getting over two TDs in the NFL is a joke most of the time, and though Pittsburgh is clearly going to win this game, we're not so sure that it is going to come by more than those two scores. Carolina will get its ten points, and that should be enough in what could be a very ugly duel.
Free Pro Football Picks: Carolina +15
Prediction: Pittsburgh 20 – Carolina 10