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Steelers pounce on Panther woes

©Associated Press

December 16, 2002

PITTSBURGH -- Only a week after their season seemed in jeopardy, the Steelers find themselves in first place, and in control.

Pittsburgh, doomed by turnovers in the Dec. 8 upset loss to Houston, twice turned Carolina fumbles into Jerome Bettis touchdown runs to beat Carolina 30-14 Sunday and seize control of the AFC North.

The win, only their third in six games, boosted the Steelers' division lead to 11/2 games over Cleveland. The Steelers can lose the division only if they drop their final two and the Browns or Ravens win two straight.

The race tightened when the expansion Texans scored three defensive touchdowns in a 24-6 win. Sunday the Pittsburgh defense made the pivotal plays.

Pittsburgh didn't score a touchdown without help after its opening possession, when Tommy Maddox capped a 77-yard drive with an 11-yard touchdown to Plaxico Burress. Burress had six catches for 120 yards after dropping half a dozen passes against Houston.

"I never doubted myself or questioned if I could play this game," Burress said. "I know people were looking to me and how I would respond, so I said, 'Don't go out and try to do anything special, just be me and let the game come to me.' "

Maddox, aware he might be benched if his turnover problems persisted, threw an interception that led to Rodney Peete's 6-yard touchdown to running back Dee Brown. But he was effective otherwise, going 20-of-33 for 209 yards.

"They got turnovers and gave their offense a short field," Panthers cornerback Terry Cousin said. "It wasn't like their offense was a juggernaut."

A week after limiting Houston to 47 yards -- the fewest ever in the NFL by a winning team -- the Steelers were even better in the first half, holding the Panthers to 0 yards: 6 rushing and minus-6 passing. All of Carolina's 131 yards came in the second half.

Steve Smith fumbled a punt midway through the third quarter, with Brett Keisel recovering at the Carolina 18. Bettis carried on the next three plays, scoring from the 9 to make it 20-7.

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