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Sights set on goal

It's just a few days before Christmas and forget the visions of sugarplums, the Steelers have something else dancing through their heads … winning the AFC North.

They have already secured a playoff spot, but a win over the Carolina Panthers on Thursday night combined with the Baltimore Ravens losing to the Cleveland Browns on Sunday would give the Steelers their Christmas wish.

"That wasn't our goal to get in the playoffs, it is to win the division and we are still fighting for that," said linebacker James Farrior. "Everybody's mindset is still the same. Even though we are in the playoffs, we want to win the division."

Another way to win the division would be for the Steelers to win out the next two games, defeating Carolina and the Cleveland Browns on Jan. 2.

 "That is what we play for, to try and win our division," said wide receiver Hines Ward. "Win our division and take care of things we can control. That was our goal. The good thing about it is we don't need any help and we wouldn't want it any other way. It comes down to us. We take care of our business and get what we want, get some guys back who are injured and move forward from there."

Also on the Christmas wish list is getting a first-round bye, something that two wins would guarantee.

"If you get the bye you are two games away from the Super Bowl," said Ward. "You let the other teams beat each other up in the first round. You know for sure you have one home game. You win that and you are in the championship game and one away from the Super Bowl."

The bye would give the Steelers a chance to rest some, and give defensive end Aaron Smith another week to heal and be ready to go.

"The bye is important for any team in the league," added Ward. "That is what we are playing for. It's not saying we can't do it if we don't get the number two seed. We have won it as the sixth seed. For us with the guys we have missing, Troy (Polamalu), Aaron, guys like that a bye would be crucial to us."

The Steelers have a short week to prepare for the Panthers on Thursday night, but coming off a disappointing 22-17 loss to the New York Jets they wouldn't want it any other way.

"Everybody is excited to get back out there," said Farrior. "We were ready to play the next day. I am glad we have the opportunity to get out there a little bit earlier than we normally do."

Coach Mike Tomlin didn't hold practice on Monday, giving the players that day to recover, before taking the field on Tuesday.

"I am ready to play," said wide receiver Mike Wallace. "I am still upset about the game on Sunday. Any time you lose you want to go back and play again. With everything we have on the line, we are excited about going out there and trying to get a 'W' on Thursday."

Defensive end Aaron Smith was working out at the team's practice facility, but still is not practicing as he recovers from a triceps injury.

Smith is setting his sights on returning for the playoffs, but knows he still has a ways to go.

"It's up to the doctors and how things hold up and how we go," said Smith. "Yeah you are optimistic…but we'll see what happens."

Smith, who will have a scan on the arm next week, said it will be up to how his body heals as to whether or not he can play in the post-season.

"When it comes down to it we are all going to sit down and see what is in the best interest of the team and myself and where we want to go from there," said Smith. "I think if the doctors and staff feel it's safe enough for me to play I can definitely contribute to the team."

The annual Children's Hospital Free Care Fund collection will be held at the Steelers-Panthers game on Dec. 23.  Volunteers will be inside Heinz Field gates accepting monetary donations.  Please be as generous as possible to help the kids at Children's have a happier holiday.

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