SURFACE: Natural grass
TV: NFL Network, Bob Papa, Joe Theismann, Matt Millen, Alex Flanagan
PREDICTION: Steelers 34-15
KEYS TO THE GAME: Turnovers and a passing game bordering on timid have been the undoing of the Panthers' offense. They'll do their best four-corners offense portrayal by running the ball with Jonathan Stewart and Mike Goodson to chew up time, but it won't be easy against the Steelers' No. 1-ranked run defense (63.4 yards per game). Carolina's cornerbacks are feisty and willing to take chances. But unless DE Charles Johnson continues his sack barrage, there's not enough talent assembled on the Panthers' defense to keep them in the game.
FAST FACTS: Johnson has six sacks in the past five games, including at least one sack in all five. ... The Steelers are 2-2 in primetime games this season.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
The Carolina Panthers have finally found their running game, albeit a little too late to make much of a difference this season.
Over the past four games the Panthers have taken their running game to a new level.
They've averaged 167.5 yards per game and 5.2 yards per carry during that span with four rushing touchdowns.
That's a marked improvement from the first 10 games, during which the Panthers averaged a mere 96.4 yards per game and averaged 3.8 yards per carry with three rushing touchdowns.
On Sunday, Jonathan Stewart surpassed 100 yards rushing for the second straight week, posting a season-high 137 yards on the ground on a workmanlike 27 carries. He had 133 yards in Week 14.
"Running the ball is a physical part of the game and having all cylinders click is kind of hard," Stewart said of the team's struggles this season. "It's not the easiest thing in the world. It's hard to get all of the guys on the same page and doing the right things and doing their assignments and beating the man in front of you. That is what we've been doing the last few games. That helps win games."
Coach John Fox believes the consistency on the offensive line in recent weeks has helped.
Since moving Mackenzy Bernadeau to left guard following an injury to Travelle Wharton, the Panthers have started the same lineup for the past five games.
"The run game is something we've been able to count on and it wasn't as good early in the year but it's been firing well," said left tackle Jordan Gross. "Whenever you can keep the lead we can get more opportunities."
The Panthers won't come close to averaging 156.1 yards per game like they did in 2009, but at least there has been some improvement.
"I feel like our run game has been pretty good the last month and a half," Gross said. "We have been able to run the ball traditionally pretty good against the Cardinals.
"They're a good front, but we were able to keep the lead and that gives you the opportunity to run it more often. It turned out good in the end."
LB James Farrior
"It's very important," linebacker James Farrior said. "We've got guys banged up right now, guys fighting through just to make it to the end of the season. Having a bye week is definitely an advantage."
If they beat the Panthers on Thursday and Baltimore loses at Cleveland on Sunday, that would give Pittsburgh the AFC North Division and no worse than the No. 2 seed. Not only would it give the Steelers a playoff bye, but the Jan. 2 game in Cleveland would be virtually meaningless, and Pittsburgh could rest its wounded for two full weeks.
"It's something you want to have," said Farrior, at 35 having a good bounce-back season. "You don't want to go in having to play all of them, but if you have to, you have to."
The Steelers would love to rest players such as quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (broken nose, broken foot), 35-year-old tackle Flozell Adams (ankle), Troy Polamalu (Achilles), and Hines Ward and a few other older players like Farrior, Brett Keisel and even Rashard Mendenhall.
"The division title is still obtainable for us, so we have to go out here and win these two games," Farrior said.
The Steelers and Ravens are tied at 10-4, but Pittsburgh would win the tiebreaker -- best record within the division -- if the teams remain tied. Kansas City could catch the Steelers for No. 2 only if Pittsburgh loses its final two games.
That's unlikely to happen. The Steelers are heavy favorites to beat the 2-12 Panthers, who start rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen, who has the league's worst passer rating at 59.1 and runs the league's least-productive passing offense.
The Steelers expect the Panthers to run it as often as they can with Jonathan Stewart and Mike Goodson. The problem for Carolina is the Steelers have the best run defense in the NFL by far, allowing an average of just 63.4 yards per game.
"When you look at them on offense, you know what they're going to try to do -- and that's run the ball. They run the ball against everybody they face -- good defenses, bad defenses, doesn't matter," Farrior said. "They're going to force that run. That's a big challenge for our defense, that's what we love to do. We didn't feel like we played our best run defense last week, and we have something to prove this week."
Pittsburgh has not blown a division lead in the final month of the season in 20 years. The only time the Steelers lost a late lead came in 1990, when they went into the final weekend with a one-game lead in the old AFC Central, lost at Houston and did not make the playoffs.
--LB Jordan Senn recovered two onsides kicks off the foot of Jay Feely on Sunday and continues to make a difference on special teams.
--WR Armanti Edwards (illness) remains out of practice. He also missed all of last week's practice and Sunday's game.
--RB Mike Goodson (illness) did not practice on Tuesday.
--DE Tyler Brayton (hip) was held out of practice Tuesday. Brayton has yet to record a sack this season.
--FB Tony Fiammetta (ankle) did not practice due to an ankle injury.
--WR Steve Smith has not caught a touchdown pass since Week 2, the longest stint of his career. He said Tuesday he will discuss his future with the team with his wife after the season. He's under contract for two more years.
--QB Ben Roethlisberger aggravated his broken right foot Sunday against the Jets, but it will not hold him back Thursday.
--OT Jonathan Scott will start on the left side Thursday. There was some question after Scott did not play in the final series after missing a block on a safety.
--LB James Farrior has four of his five sacks in the past five games and now is third on the team. His career high of six came in 2007, and he's never had more than four until now.
--LB Lawrence Timmons is on his way to winning his first team tackles title. He has 138, 13 more than perennial leader James Farrior.
--RB Rashard Mendenhall will finish with one of the most productive rushing seasons in Steelers history. With 1,173 yards, he needs 166 yards in the final two games to move into the top five and just 10 yards to move into the top 10.