Although falling short in a 23-16 loss to the Denver Broncos was disappointing, it's impressive the Steelers were even in contention after the devastating injuries they dealt with all year long. Obviously, every NFL team has to overcome losses throughout the season, but few had to compete without as many elite players as Pittsburgh this year.
All-Pro center Maurkice Pouncey missed the entire season, while superstar running back Le'Veon Bell only played in six games. The theme continued into the playoffs with DeAngelo Williams, Antonio Brown and others out against the Broncos.
Facing the No. 1 defense in the NFL in yards allowed without a trustworthy running back and arguably the league's best receiver is almost an impossible challenge that would derail just about any offense.
Despite the odds against them, the Steelers kept it close thanks mostly to the play of Ben Roethlisberger. He finished the day 24-of-37 passing for 339 yards despite coming into the week questionable with a sprained AC joint and some torn ligaments in his shoulder. He didn't have any touchdowns but also avoided turnovers and gave his team a chance to win the game.
If not for a Fitzgerald Toussaint fumble, this could have been a different result.
Roethlisberger liked the team's effort in the close loss:
Pittsburgh Steelers @steelers
"I'm very proud of everyone's efforts. We overcame so much to get to this point." [Ben on disappointing loss] https://t.co/k0l7f8dWdd2016-1-18 01:29:40
The veteran quarterback was especially impressive in the game, as argued by Chase Stuart of Football Perspective:
Football Perspective @fbgchase
Credit to Ben today. This is arguably the best game by any QB all year against Denver. Doing it on the road, hurt, without his WR1.2016-1-18 00:37:18
This type of gutsy performance isn't something new for Roethlisberger. The 33-year-old quarterback spent this year dealing with a sprained MCL and bone bruise in his knee, sprained foot and a concussion.
Opposing fans might think the injuries are overblown, but the reality is every one of these ailments seemed likely to force him off the field for an extended period of time. In every case, he returned before just about anyone expected.
After it seemed like he wouldn't have a chance of playing this week, he put together an excellent effort against the Broncos, showing little sign he was even injured. Doug Gottlieb of CBS Sports joked about the player's ability to stay on the field:
Doug Gottlieb @GottliebShow
Big Ben is made out of the same material as Black Boxes on airplanes #PITvsDEN2016-1-17 22:33:51
Of course, Roethlisberger is more than just toughness. People sometimes forget, but he is still one of the best quarterbacks in football. His 328.2 passing yards per game led the NFL and was the highest of his career. The 12-year veteran also posted the highest total QBR of his career at 76.86, per Pro-Football-Reference.com.
He is getting up there in age, and the window for success won't be much longer, but he can still lead a team to a championship. This means Pittsburgh needs to take advantage of this opportunity and get him some help quick.
The good news is the team is already built for success. Playmakers Bell and Brown weren't on the field Sunday, although this allowed Martavis Bryant to step into the spotlight. The receiver had a great season, but he was as good as ever against the Broncos defense, finishing with nine catches for 154 receiving yards as well as this 40-yard run:
👽 sighting in Denver. And this one goes for 40 yards. #PITvsDEN #Steelers https://t.co/Jv2ZIGa0cH2016-1-17 22:25:20
The second-year receiver is clearly a star in the making and has a chance to put up huge numbers in the future alongside Brown and Markus Wheaton.
Even with the injuries, Pittsburgh's offense finished the regular season in the top five in the league in both points and yards. If the squad can stay healthy and possibly add a little more help on the offensive line, it could definitely be one of the best in football.
There are a few more questions on the other side with a defense that gave up a lot of big plays. The unit is loaded with young players filled with upside like Ryan Shazier, Bud Dupree and Stephon Tuitt, but all of them have been inconsistent to start their careers.
Additionally, the squad needs a lot of help in the secondary after giving up 272 passing yards per game to rank third-worst in the NFL despite having a solid pass rush.
This is an area Pittsburgh will probably have to address with the No. 25 pick in the 2016 draft or at least in one of the early rounds.
No matter what the Steelers do in the offseason, however, there is plenty of reason for optimism going forward. Everything seemed to go wrong this year, and yet they were a couple of plays away from playing in the AFC Championship Game. With young players who will get better and a tough-as-nails quarterback still performing at a high level, this will be a tough team to bet against.
The recent loss will sting for some time, but 2016 could be a good year for this franchise.
Follow Rob Goldberg on Twitter for year-round sports analysis.