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Thursday, December 23, 2010
Five things to watch: Panthers at Steelers

By James Walker

The Pittsburgh Steelers (10-4) can take another step toward securing the AFC North title and a first-round bye Thursday night when they play host to the Carolina Panthers (2-12). The Steelers had a short week to prepare for the Panthers after suffering a tough loss this past Sunday to the New York Jets.

Here are five things to watch in Pittsburgh:

1. Where is the home-field advantage? Traditionally, Heinz Field has been a house of horrors for visiting teams. But the Steelers have struggled mightily to protect their home field this year. Pittsburgh is a pedestrian 4-3 at home, but has an opportunity to finish strong in its final regular-season game at Heinz Field. If the Steelers win their last two contests, they will host a divisional round game in the playoffs. Overall, Pittsburgh has been much better on the road (6-1).

2. Winning without Troy: It's clear the Steelers are not the same team without Troy Polamalu. Dating to last season, Pittsburgh is 5-7 in games without its do-it-all safety. The Steelers would be wise not to overlook that stat and put forth their best effort against Carolina. Sure, the Panthers have the NFL's worst record. But that didn't stop inferior opponents such as the Cleveland Browns and Oakland Raiders from upsetting Pittsburgh during last year's five-game losing streak without Polamalu.

3. Will the special teams bounce back? For the most part Pittsburgh has done a good job of curing its special-teams woes from the past few years. But some old habits showed up again last week in a 22-17 loss to the Jets. The Steelers' kick coverage struggled, as Brad Smith took the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown. The return set the tone for the rest of the game and turned out to be the difference. Pittsburgh also allowed 16 yards per punt return, which helped New York with field position. Big plays on special teams might be one of the few ways Carolina could pull off an upset.

4. Miller returns: Steelers starting tight end Heath Miller will make his return to the offense after missing the past two games with a concussion. Miller is one of the most underrated players on the team and will be a nice boost to Pittsburgh's passing and running game. Backup tight ends Matt Spaeth and David Johnson have been inconsistent ,  and Miller will bring  much-needed stability to the position. He is third on the Steelers with 33 receptions for 384 yards and a touchdown.

5. Avoid injuries: The playoff-bound Steelers would do themselves a huge favor if they can put the Panthers away early and avoid major injuries. Pittsburgh, like most teams, is banged up at this late stage in the season and wants to get healthy for a playoff run. The good part about the Steelers playing on Thursday is they will get 10 days to rest and prepare for the Browns in Week 17. Taking care of business tonight would set up Pittsburgh well for the final week of the regular season and, eventually, the postseason.