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Pieces falling into place for the Steelers’ quest to glory

With key players returning from injury and essentially a 3-week break ahead, things haven’t looked this good in years for the playoff-bound Steelers.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Houston Texans Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

During the 2016 regular season, the Pittsburgh Steelers had a solid team which reeled off nine straight wins starting in Week 11 and including their two playoff victories. But unless you were looking at the team through rose-colored glasses, your gut feeling had to tell you that the chances for the 2016 edition of the Black-and-gold to go into Gillette Stadium and knock off the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game were slim at best. While the final score might have been somewhat closer if Le’Veon Bell hadn’t been injured in Kansas City the previous week, it was still difficult to make a case that last year’s team was ever truly on a par with the Pats.

But in 2017, things have changed. As we saw in the game played last week at Heinz Field, the Steelers not only are competitive with New England but, in certain ways, are actually the stronger team. And in the wake of the officials’ call on the Jesse James apparent TD, which cost them a Week-15 victory that likely would have given them the No. 1 seed, it’s Pittsburgh that heads into the playoffs with a score to settle in Foxborough, provided that the Pats don’t stumble on their way to the AFC Championship Game.

On Christmas Day in Houston, we saw a Steelers team back on the winning track and continuing to hone its skills on both sides of the ball, despite the absence of two of their biggest stars, Ryan Shazier and Antonio Brown. We saw an offense functioning nearly as well with its receiver-corps-by-committee as it did with No. 84 on the field. We witnessed the significant difference that the presence of Joe Haden makes in the Steelers’ defensive backfield, as well as the dynamic and improving blitz capabilities of safety Mike Hilton. We also saw a continuation of the concentration and discipline which has largely enabled the Steelers to avoid costly turnovers and penalties.

Granted, the Texans are not the Patriots. In fact, with the possible exception of the Cleveland Browns, who come into Heinz Field next Sunday with zero wins and the worst record in the NFL, you’d be hard-pressed to find any team in the league with a more ineffective offense than Houston without Deshaun Watson. But the important thing is that the Steelers were able to clinch their first-round bye while restarting the momentum they had prior to the loss to the Pats. At the same time, depth players who normally spend the entire game on the bench were able to get substantial snaps as a tune-up in case they’re needed in the playoffs. We can expect this process of readying depth players to continue throughout next Sunday’s largely meaningless finale versus the Browns.

Thus, we have every reason to assume that the Steelers will begin their playoff quest with most of their key players healthy, and the entire team well-rested. You can’t ask for a better circumstance than this when your team is gunning for a league championship.

From this point forward, everyone will be keeping a close eye on the status of Antonio Brown, the Steelers’ consummate play-maker. Even without Brown, the Steelers’ offense is dangerous. But with him, Ben Roethlisberger and company are downright lethal as a unit.

The Steelers are 9-1 in their last ten games, with only a narrow loss to the defending NFL champs (courtesy of a dubious officials’ call) preventing them from a perfect 10-0 mark. No team in the NFL is running any hotter than the Black-and-gold right now. Given some positive developments regarding Brown’s injury status, Pittsburgh very well could be the team nobody wants to play come playoff time. And this time around, that “nobody” definitely would include the haughty Patriots and their fans.