PITTSBURGH – In a sport where parity runs rampant, fans have learned to expect the unexpected.
Sometimes, however, things still go according to script - an unfortunate reality for the Carolina Panthers on Thursday night.
"They're a great team," Carolina quarterback Jimmy Clausen said after the Panthers fell 27-3 to the playoff-bound Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field. "They're just real good. You've got to give them their credit."
On paper, the primetime game pitted one of the NFL's top defenses against the league's least productive offense, and it played out exactly that way.
The Panthers mustered the second-fewest yards in franchise history (119) and equaled the second-fewest first downs (seven), avoiding a shutout with a fourth-quarter field goal set up by favorable field position that allowed Carolina to score by moving the ball just 14 yards.
"I don't want to say we lucked into a field goal, but we were pretty close to a goose egg," Panthers left tackle Jordan Gross said. "That's a really good defense. They're No. 1 against the run and in the top five in everything, and they looked like it today.
"We didn't do much. We weren't very good in any phase. Just not a good day."
The statistical stinginess of the Steelers' defense was made even more impressive by the encouraging start that the Panthers enjoyed. Carolina received the opening kickoff and ate up more than seven minutes, picking up 52 yards of total offense and three first downs along the way.
The drive, however, stalled at Pittsburgh's 32-yard line - close enough for a John Kasay field goal attempt most days but not with the wintry elements in play Thursday night. Head coach John Fox put Kasay's outer limit at the 30-yard line, so he made the decision to punt.
By the time the Panthers had picked up three more first downs (accomplished on the last play of the third quarter) and gained 52 more yards (early in the fourth quarter), they trailed by 27 points.
"It was a little promising early, but they made some adjustments against the run game and tried to make us throw, and then we didn't do as well," Fox said. "We were probably lucky that it wasn't worse."
It could have been worse for the Panthers (2-13), even with the Steelers (11-4) proceeding to score on five of their first nine drives. They had to settle for a field goal on their opening drive after a replay challenge by Fox overturned a touchdown reception, and their scoreless drives included a lost fumble in Carolina territory, a missed field goal and a failed fourth-down play from the Panthers' 5-yard line.
Carolina's defense forced Pittsburgh to settle at times - the fourth-down stop was a remarkable one on a screen pass - but the defense got victimized multiple times as well.
Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger suffered three sacks - including two via still surging defensive end Charles Johnson - but he threw for 320 yards with one passing touchdown and one rushing touchdown to help Pittsburgh build a 20-0 halftime advantage.
Clausen, by contrast, threw for just 72 yards with one interception. Running back Jonathan Stewart did manage 71 yards on the ground, but it wasn't nearly enough.
"We had a bunch of breakdowns that led to a bunch of big plays," Johnson said. "We've got to click in all phases, and we weren't doing that tonight."