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Steelers rout Panthers, Ben Roethlisberger has 5 TDs ahead of Le’Veon Bell’s likely return

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PITTSBURGH — The Steelers remained hotter than a blast furnace, extending their winning streak to five games Thursday night by mashing the Panthers — they entered the game on a three-game win streak of their own — 52-21.

Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger completed 22 of 25 throws for 328 yards and five touchdowns to five different receivers. He achieved a perfect 158.3 passer rating for the fourth time in his 15-year career.

Best game ever, Ben?

“Well, if you’re looking at stats — probably,” Roethlisberger said. “But, you know what? Guys make plays. I’m only gonna be as good as the linemen are and the guys making the plays for me.”

Wearing their Color Rush “Dark Knight” uniforms — you’ll recall Batman and Bane once tore up Heinz Field — the Steelers (6-2-1) needed little time to turn the lights out on the Panthers even after Carolina began the game by slicing through the Pittsburgh defense for 75 yards and a touchdown on the opening drive.

Pittsburgh merely responded by scoring 24 consecutive points, including two touchdowns on the two plays after the Panthers’ initial possession: a 75-yard touchdown pass from Roethlisberger to JuJu Smith-Schuster followed by linebacker Vince Williams’ 17-yard touchdown off a Cam Newton interception on the subsequent snap.

The victory extended the Steelers’ AFC North lead over Cincinnati (5-3) to a full game, while giving them the fourth-best record in the conference heading into the weekend. The Panthers (6-3) fell 1½ games behind the NFC South-leading New Orleans Saints, and could soon face a challenge from behind by the scorching Atlanta Falcons.

“It’s a good feeling to (beat) a good football team,” said Roethlisberger.

Three other things we learned:

1. This was the first time in Pittsburgh’s hot streak that RB James Conner didn’t rush for at least 100 yards (65 yards, TD) — mostly because he didn’t need to, and also because he was evaluated for a concussion in the second half. Big Ben spread the wealth among his weapons exceptionally well — including a 53-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Brown, who somehow wound up single-covered by Carolina rookie CB Donte Jackson, that put the Steelers up 31-14 going into the half. Of course, the Pittsburgh offense could be altered drastically in the coming days with all-pro RB Le’Veon Bell expected to rejoin the team by Tuesday’s deadline to report if he wants to play this season.

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2. Newton and Carolina RB Christian McCaffrey looked poised to have their way with the Steelers based on the initial march. McCaffrey racked up 60 of the 75 yards, capping it off with a 20-yard scoring pass from Newton, who’s having a campaign approaching his 2015 MVP effort. But the Pittsburgh defense has been resurgent during the team’s winning streak and quickly buckled down, starting with Williams’ pick six, and kept the Panthers’ star duo largely in check (though McCaffrey did also score a cosmetic TD in the second quarter, he only totaled 78 yards after his initial touchdown). The Steelers’ special teams also got into the act. K Chris Boswell drilling a 50-yard field goal, and the coverage unit forced a Curtis Samuel fumble on a kickoff at the end of the third quarter that set up another TD to start the final period. Bottom line: Dominant team effort near the confluence of the Three Rivers.

3. Not a very memorable night for Pittsburgh native, Pitt and Carnegie Mellon alum and former Steelers minority owner David Tepper, who bought the Panthers from disgraced predecessor Jerry Richardson earlier this year and roamed the sideline before kickoff. Still, he’s got a good team that simply got steamrolled on an off night. However the Panthers do need to learn how to prevail on the road given they’ve never won a playoff game away from Charlotte in the Cam Newton era. They’re 5-0 at Bank of America Stadium this year, but just 1-3 away from it.

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Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.

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