PITTSBURGH, Dec. 15 (UPI) -- Jerome Bettis ran for two touchdowns Sunday and Pittsburgh forced four turnovers to carry the Steelers to a 30-14 victory over the Carolina Panthers.
First-place Pittsburgh (8-5-1) increased its lead in the AFC North to 1 1/2 games over both the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens.
"We have been playing well," Steelers Coach Bill Cowher said. "A lot of people will say 'look at the teams you play'. You can't control that. We are playing with a lot of confidence. We have been able to work through some third downs, things that had been a bugaboo, so to speak.
"With Kendrell Bell back, he gives you a presence of the field. James Farrior is getting more comfortable. Jason Gildon is picking up his game the last couple of weeks and Joey Porter has played solid all year."
The Steelers bounced back from last week's bizarre loss to Houston, in which Tommy Maddox threw two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns and had a fumble that was returned for another score.
On Sunday, two of Carolina's turnovers led to touchdowns by Bettis. Midway through the third quarter, receiver Steve Smith fumbled at his own 18 and Steelers rookie defensive end Brent Keisel recovered.
"As the guy went to set a pick for me, I just fell," Smith said. "On this field that's going to happen. But you still have to play here. I'm not making an excuse. I just made a mistake. I was just trying to make the most out of the play."
Two plays later, Bettis scored from nine yards out, giving the Steelers a 20-7 lead. Bettis' second touchdown capped the scoring and came four plays after defensive end Aaron Smith stripped quarterback Rodney Peete at the Carolina 15 midway through the fourth quarter.
Reed kicked his final field goal after Dee Brown's one-yard touchdown run cut Pittsburgh's lead to 20-14 just 92 seconds into the fourth.
Brown's second touchdown came after three consecutive challenges, including two successful ones by Cowher.
Cowher contested Smith's apparent touchdown catch on second and seven, contending he had been down before reaching the end zone. And on first and goal from the four, Cowher got Brown's apparent touchdown run up the middle overturned when replays showed he had been tackled well short of the goal line.
"We struggled offensively," Carolina coach John Fox said. "I thought we had a chance to get back in the game at 20-14. We had a couple of chances, that's a tribute to their defense. Rodney was harassed and we didn't protect as well as we needed to.
"But it was not just turnovers."
Pittsburgh harassed Peete throughout and sacked him four times and Chris Weinke twice. The Steelers' defense was so effective that Carolina had zero offensive yards at halftime.
"Zero yards at the half, it's frustrating," Panthers center Jeff Mitchell said. "They have good people. The 3-4 seems to give us trouble. We had problems last week against the 3-4. We had another tough day. We just don't seem to execute against it."
Maddox bounced back from last week's loss by completing 20 of 23 passes for 209 yards, including a touchdown pass to Plaxico Burress in the first quarter.
Two of Burress' catches were on third down to keep scoring drives alive. On Pittsburgh's opening drive, he had a 16-yard catch on third and six at the Pittsburgh 41. Hines Ward followed with a 27-yard catch and, two plays later, Burress scored.
Late in the first quarter, Burress had a 31-yard catch to the Carolina 34.
Bettis rushed for 73 yards on 18 attempts while Burress had six receptions for 120 yards.
Maddox engineered Pittsburgh's first drive into a touchdown as he directed the Steelers 77 yards and hooked up with Burress for an 11-yard strike with 8:35 remaining in the first.
Carolina forged a 7-7 tie with 3:40 left when Brown caught a six-yard pass from Peete, which was set up by safety Mike Minter's 62-yard interception return.
Reed kicked field goals of 36 and 41 yards as the Steelers took a 13-7 lead into the locker room.
"We can't worry about other teams," Bettis said. "We have to keep the level of our game up. We're too close to the end. Things will fall into place."