By Steve Keating
PITTSBURGH (Reuters) - The Pittsburgh Steelers tightened their grip on top spot in the AFC North and a first-round bye in the playoffs by routing the Carolina Panthers 27-3 Thursday.
While Pittsburgh had already clinched a playoff spot, the victory over the punchless Panthers (2-13) put the Steelers (11-4) in position to claim the division crown with a Baltimore Ravens loss to the Cleveland Browns Sunday.
The Steelers wrap up their regular season against the Browns while the Ravens close out their schedule against the Cincinnati Bengals.
"It's great to be in the clubhouse for the weekend with the necessary win and we can watch others sort themselves out," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin told reporters. "We were far from perfect but we were good enough to win tonight.
"That's not going to be easy going to Cleveland but we'll be prepared for that. It was good to get a win and move forward."
The Steelers kept the pressure on the Ravens by overwhelming the Panthers, the only team yet to record a road win this season.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger completed 22 of 32 passes for 320 yards and a touchdown while adding a one-yard score on the ground.
Despite the lopsided score, Pittsburgh's offense was not firing on all cylinders, squandering several scoring chances that could have proved costly against stiffer competition.
"I guess we have high standards for ourselves," said Roethlisberger. "I left a lot out there. We got the win, which is great, but I still left a couple of throws out there that I've got to improve on.
"You win, you get a bye and more time to rest. We still have a big game coming up. We have to take care of business."
A capacity crowd arrived at a frigid Heinz Field in the Christmas holiday mood and Steelers wasted no time getting the party started.
The hosts scored on their opening possession, settling for a 26-yard Shaun Suisham field goal after a video review ruled a no catch on an apparent touchdown.
But there was no questioning the Steelers' touchdown in the second quarter, Roethlisberger connecting with Mike Wallace on 43-yard strike to put the home side up 10-0.
The Steelers found the end zone again before the break, Rashard Mendenhall diving over from the one-yard line to cap a 72-yard drive, which was followed by a 29-yard Suisham field goal.
Pittsburgh came storming out of the break, Roethlisberger engineering another long drive and bulldozing over to put the Steelers in charge 27-0.
The Steelers were without defensive talisman Troy Polamalu but did not miss their injured safety, limiting the Panthers to a 27-yard John Kasay field goal and 119-yards of total offense.
Carolina quarterback Jimmy Clausen completed 10 of 23 passes for just 72 yards, as the Panthers were unable to mount any type of consistent offensive threat on a wintry Heinz Field that will be turned into an ice rink for the January 1 NHL Winter Classic between Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals.
(Editing by Steve Ginsburg and Peter Rutherford)