PITTSBURGH (KDKA/AP) – Before the ice rink can be built inside Heinz Field for the Winter Classic on New Year’s Day, the Steelers have some unfinished football business to deal with.
The Black and Gold will host the Carolina Panthers over on the North Shore at 8:20 p.m.
Troy Polamalu will miss his second straight game with an ankle injury and Arnaz Battle is also out with a chest injury.
However, Heath Miller is expected to be back on the field after missing two games.
On Sunday, the Steelers officially made the playoffs despite a 22-17 loss to the New York Jets. It was a game they probably didn’t need to win, but certainly didn’t want to lose.
Just after the game, they learned that a computer determined they will play in the post-season. Before that can start though, the Steelers have games left against the Panthers and Cleveland Browns.
While anything is possible in the NFL – the Steelers lost to the one-win Browns in a Thursday night road game last season – Pittsburgh presents significant matchup problems for the Panthers, who have one strength but a whole lot of weaknesses.
Carolina is one of the NFL’s best running teams, with Jonathan Stewart averaging 115 yards and 5.9 yards per carry in his last four games. He has 270 yards in his last two.
But the Steelers run defense is one of the best in league history, giving up an average of 63.4 yards per game. The Steelers have permitted one 100-yard rusher in 48 games, the equivalent of three seasons.
The Steelers, 24th in pass defense, often have trouble defending against teams with strong passing games, but that’s certainly not Carolina.
The Panthers’ average of 149.3 yards passing is 32 per game fewer than any other team, and rookie Jimmy Clausen has seven interceptions but only two TD passes.
Also, Carolina is 0-6 on the road with four losses by double digits. And while Pittsburgh’s offense has produced only four touchdowns in four games, Carolina allows an average of 25 points.
If the Steelers (10-4) beat the Panthers (2-12) on tonight and the Browns (5-9) on Jan. 2, they’ll win the AFC North and be seeded No. 2 in the playoffs – no matter what the Baltimore Ravens (10-4) do against the Browns and Cincinnati Bengals (3-11).
That’s all the incentive the Steelers need to play their second game in five days, a challenge for any team regardless of its opponent.
Just after the game, crews will move in and start construction on the rink as the Penguins will then take over Heinz Field to host the Washington Capitals in the 2011 Winter Classic.