PITTSBURGH -- The liveliest party of the year just took place in Heinz Field, where they danced so hard in the end zone that they ran out of touchdown celebrations, and that's when they weren't throwing Cam Newton to the turf.
The Pittsburgh Steelers weren't lying when they said they were just getting started.
“That team wanted to come in here and embarrass us,” Steelers guard Ramon Foster said. “We just answered the call.”
The 52-21 pounding of the Panthers on Thursday tied for the most points allowed in Carolina history and showed that the Steelers look ready to make their own history. Carolina last gave up 52 points on Christmas Eve in 2000 against the Oakland Raiders.
If Ben Roethlisberger can continue to deliver masterpieces like this against a good defense, the Steelers -- winners of five straight -- might have their best chance at a Super Bowl since the early Mike Tomlin years. The entire offense feels the good vibes when Roethlisberger “is heaving it like that,” Foster said.
Roethlisberger finished 22-of-25 passing for 328 yards, five touchdowns and a perfect passer rating of 158.3, the third such game of his career. He hit every throw, as if tossing into a big net. The Steelers worked the no-huddle offense, Roethlisberger's specialty, on a short week, and the usually stout Panthers looked uneasy throughout.
Roethlisberger didn’t need an exotic explanation for his exotic play.
“When you convert third downs and score in the red zone, good things happen,” said Roethlisberger, whose offense converted 8 of 11 third downs and 4 of 4 red zone trips. “It always starts up front. You can say what you want about the skill guys, but we’re nothing without them up front.”
Turns out this offense hadn't unlocked everything it had this season. The Steelers had connected on three deep balls all season but hit two Thursday, a 75-yard touchdown to JuJu Smith-Schuster and a 53-yard score for Antonio Brown, who made rookie corner Donte Jackson look silly in press coverage.
After the Panthers marched 75 yards for the opening score, the Steelers flipped the game in 13 seconds with the Smith-Schuster touchdown on their first play from scrimmage and Vince Williams' interception for a touchdown off an ill-advised Newton throw out of the end zone. The Smith-Schuster score was the franchise's longest-ever first play from scrimmage.
When Roethlisberger left the game with 14 minutes, 55 seconds in the fourth quarter, the Steelers had scored points on all seven of their drives that didn't end in a clock runout at halftime.
On defense, the Steelers (6-2-1) sacked Newton five times and knocked him down many others. A Christian McCaffrey running game that confused the Steelers on the first drive was quickly put in park. The Steelers respected Newton’s big-play ability outside of the pocket, and “we wanted to keep him in it,” linebacker Jon Bostic said.
This was such a thorough whupping that Eric Reid's helmet shot on Roethlisberger with 1:15 left in the third quarter -- which prompted Reid's ejection -- was an attempt to revive a fight that was dead two hours earlier.
Some were realistic about the onslaught. Tomlin said that “we are probably not that good” but that explosions like this happen sometimes. Center Maurkice Pouncey added, “This is not normal.”
Here’s the new normal: The Steelers’ 177 points over the current five-game winning streak is the biggest output in franchise history over a five-game span, according to Elias Sports Bureau.
At times, the Steelers can turn unstoppable with a fast offense thriving with James Conner as the lead back -- which will only complicate matters upon Le'Veon Bell's potential return by the Tuesday deadline to play this season.
Either way, Pittsburgh is good. Rookie running back Jaylen Samuels scored. Tight ends Vance McDonald and Jesse James both scored. Even offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner was opening the playbook for fullback screens in the second quarter.
Brown and Conner, who each scored Thursday, are the first pair of teammates with 10-plus touchdowns each in their team's first nine games since Abner Haynes and Chris Burford with the 1962 Chiefs.
Roethlisberger, Brown & Co. have shown the ability to hit the throttle in previous seasons. Performances like this aren't unique for this group, especially in prime-time games.
That’s why the team wasn’t too hyped about hanging a half-hundred on a good team.
“It’s just a solid win,” Foster said. “Coach T does a good job of keeping us humble.”
But the efficiency at every level is hard to ignore right now.
They face Jacksonville, a past playoff hindrance, next Sunday, but based on this warm-up act, they look ready for anything.
Including questions about the return of Bell, with Roethlisberger saying after the game he’d prefer not to discuss players who aren’t in the locker room.
“We have stuff rolling as a unit right now, but Le’Veon is such a great player,” James said. “We’ve all seen what he’s done in previous years. We know what he’s capable of, but you’ve got to play one day at a time.”