What it means: Pittsburgh improves to 11-4 and gets one step closer to securing the AFC North division title and a first-round bye in the playoffs. The Steelers will wait for the result of this weekend's game between the Baltimore Ravens (10-4) and Cleveland Browns (5-9). If Baltimore loses, Pittsburgh clinches the division and has the option of resting key players in its Week 17 game against the Browns. If the Ravens win, both Baltimore and Pittsburgh have to play out the final week.
What I liked: The Steelers responded well after a short week of preparation and suffering a tough loss this past Sunday to the New York Jets. Pittsburgh put away the lowly Panthers (2-13) early, taking a 20-0 halftime lead. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (320 yards, two total touchdowns) and receiver Mike Wallace (four catches, 104 yards, one touchdown) led the offense, and the defense allowed only three points, which is tied for the lowest total of the season. It was a complete, business-like performance for Pittsburgh against a really bad team. The Steelers also didn't suffer any major injuries.
What I didn't like: There were a couple of things to nitpick with the Steelers. The biggest is that Pittsburgh's struggles in the red zone continued. The Steelers were 2-of-6 in the red zone and need to do much better converting touchdowns against better competition. Also, Roethlisberger was involved in two fumbles. One was a fumbled exchange with rookie center Maurkice Pouncey that appeared to be the fault of the quarterback. The second was a handoff attempt to Isaac Redman in the second half.
Underrated contributor: Steelers rookie receiver Emmanuel Sanders is coming on strong late in the season. Sanders has developed as a viable option in the slot and had four catches for 54 yards. Sanders is fearless and competitive, and it looks like Pittsburgh has another good find in the third round.
Miller returns: After missing the past two games with a concussion, Pittsburgh starting tight end Heath Miller returned and made an immediate contribution. The offense looked much better with Miller's receiving and solid run blocking. He recorded a team-high five receptions to go with his 73 yards.
Streak broken: Steelers kicker Shaun Suisham has done a good job of replacing longtime Pittsburgh kicker Jeff Reed. Suisham made two field goals in the first half but his streak of 12 straight makes ended when he missed a 41-yard attempt at the end of the first half.
What's next: The Steelers have a good opportunity to rest and get healthy with 10 days to prepare for their Jan. 2 rivalry game against the Browns. Last year the Browns split the season series with Pittsburgh, picking up a 13-6 win in Cleveland.