Steelers welcome short-week challenge with Panthers up next

The Pittsburgh Steelers hope a short week leads to a long layoff.

The team practiced Tuesday, normally a day off, during its lone day of on-field preparation before Thursday night's game against the Carolina Panthers (2-12).

Normally, NFL players don't welcome games that follow just three days of rest, especially after a game as physical and as tense as the Steelers' 22-17 loss to the New York Jets was Sunday.

On NFL Network:
Carolina Panthers at Pittsburgh Steelers, Thursday, 8:20 p.m. ET

Thursday Night Kickoff,

6 p.m. ET

"Some weeks, on Thursday, I don't know how I'm going to play on Sunday," safety Ryan Clark said Tuesday.

Still, the Steelers (10-4) almost seem to welcome this game occurring this soon, and not just because it's against an opponent that had won only once before Sunday's victory over the Arizona Cardinals.

"I would've played this game Sunday night," linebacker James Farrior said.

The payoff: The Steelers will have nine days off before their Jan. 2 regular-season finale at Cleveland (5-9). Then, if they have won the AFC North title and are the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs, they will have an extra week off before their first playoff game.

All that extra rest could allow Pittsburgh to get safety Troy Polamalu (strained right Achilles' tendon) and defensive end Aaron Smith (torn triceps) back for the postseason. Ben Roethlisberger's broken nose ought to feel better -- maybe the quarterback can discard the face shield -- and perhaps his sore right foot won't require him to wear a shoe 1½ sizes larger than normal.

Also, NFL.com senior writer Steve Wyche reported that tight end Heath Miller returned to practice Tuesday and appears set to play after missing the previous two games because of a concussion.

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"We're in a great position. We've clinched, which is good, and we can have a first-round bye, which would be huge for this team -- get some guys (healthy) who are banged up and rusty," defensive end Brett Keisel said. "It's all out there for us, we've just got to go take it."

A week ago, the NFL-issued playoffs scenario for the Steelers required a mathematician to decipher. This week, now that Pittsburgh has clinched a playoff spot, it couldn't be simpler. If the Steelers win and the Baltimore Ravens (10-4) lose in Cleveland, Pittsburgh will win the AFC North and own the No. 2 playoff seed.

If the Steelers don't win, or if the Ravens do, the division race goes down to the final weekend, when Baltimore plays at home against the Cincinnati Bengals (3-11).

Although the Steelers can win the division merely by winning their last two games, the preferable scenario for them would be to clinch this weekend. Then they wouldn't have to play any not-quite-healthy players in Cleveland.

The Steelers proved five years ago, as did the New York Giants a couple of seasons later, that a sixth-seeded team can go on the road throughout the playoffs and still win the Super Bowl. But they're the only two teams to accomplish it.

Wide receiver Hines Ward knows the much more likely route to Arlington, Texas, is by gaining a first-round playoff bye.

"You're two games away from the Super Bowl," Ward said. "You let the other teams beat each other up in the first round. You know for sure you got one home game, and you win that game, then you're in the championship game and are one win away from the Super Bowl. That bye is important for any team in the league if you have an opportunity to get it. For us, that's what we plan for."

The Steelers likely won't have Polamalu for a second consecutive game after he didn't practice Tuesday. The team would settle for having him ready to go next month.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin already has pulled a psychological ploy, suggesting it's an advantage for a younger team such as the Panthers to play on a Thursday night following a short turnaround.

"Physically, they're capable of bouncing back faster, no question, so we've got to prepare extremely smart and put our veteran outfit in the best position to play effective football," Tomlin said.

His players' reaction to this can't-be-disguised attempt to motivate?

"The older guys, we don't need motivation like that, we're always self-motivated," said Farrior, who turns 36 in two weeks. "So that's not going to work for us old, old guys."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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