At the quarter pole of the NFL season, the Pittsburgh Steelers were in an unfamiliar spot in the AFC North -- anchored at the bottom of the division after winning one of their first four games.
Whether it was the absence of holdout running back Le'Veon Bell, the age of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (36) or the continued decline of its defense, it appeared as if Pittsburgh's window of opportunity was closing -- and fast.
Fast forward six weeks and any of the previous concerns look foolhardy for the Steelers (6-2-1), who have surged back to their accustomed perch atop the AFC North on the heels of a five-game winning streak.
Four days after posting a gritty 23-16 victory at bitter rival Baltimore, the Steelers turned in their best performance of the year by destroying the Carolina Panthers 52-21 on Thursday night in a game that was every bit as close as the score indicated.
Roethlisberger threw for 328 yards and five touchdown passes as Pittsburgh manhandled a Panthers club that was riding a three-game winning streak and had won five of its previous six.
"Really big performance versus a really good team on a short week," said Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin. "It's a lot to be proud of. But we are probably not that good. You get games like that sometimes. The ball gets rolling downhill. We are appreciative of it. It was a great atmosphere tonight. We'll enjoy this long weekend and get ready to roll up our sleeves and fight again."
The Steelers made it look ridiculously easy in dismantling Carolina (6-3). Roethlisberger completed 22 of 25 passes and compiled a perfect 158.3 passer rating to join Kurt Warner as the only quarterbacks with at least 300 yards, five scoring passes and three or fewer incompletions in a game.
"We have a lot of weapons and the offensive line protects well," said Roethlisberger. "I can't say enough about how well they played. It's a really good defense and they protected me tonight. It's a good team win against a really good team."
Roethlisberger answered an opening touchdown by the Panthers with a 75-yard touchdown to JuJu Smith-Schuster on Pittsburgh's first offensive play from scrimmage and later had a 53-yard scoring strike to Antonio Brown. Seven different players scored TDs to tie a franchise record for Pittsburgh, which has piled up 177 points during the five-game winning streak.
"I liked the contributions from a lot people," said Tomlin. "We came in tonight with a mentality that we had to play everyone in a helmet. That is part of short week football. I thought everyone came with that spirit and we got contributions from a lot of people. The distribution of the ball on offense is reflective of that."
Meanwhile, Pittsburgh's improving defense made life miserable for Cam Newton and the Panthers. Newton was sacked a season-high five times and was forced into an ugly interception that was returned for a touchdown as part of a 21-point first-quarter flurry.
"We just got whooped, man. It happens," said Newton, who had thrown for six touchdowns and zero interceptions in the previous three games.
Added Carolina coach Ron Rivera: "At the end of the day, guys, this (stuff) happens. It does. I'm just going to put it that way. ... I told the guys, get this one out of the way, and move forward. I'm not going to go in there and beat them down. They're beat-down already."
The one negative for Pittsburgh was in injury to James Conner, who rushed for 65 yards and a touchdown before he was hurt in the fourth quarter and placed in the concussion protocol.
Conner, who has scored eight of his 11 TDs during the five-game winning streak, could find himself in a backup role next time he takes the field. Bell must end his holdout and report to the team by Tuesday or will be ineligible to play this season. His presence would add another weapon to an offensive juggernaut.
"We have stuff rolling as a unit right now, but Le'Veon is such a great player," Steelers tight end Jesse James said. "We've all seen what he's done in previous years. We know what he's capable of, but you've got to play one day at a time."