PITTSBURGH (AP) Le'Veon Bell spent four months helping the Pittsburgh Steelers return to the top of the AFC North and four painful quarters watching helplessly as it all came undone.
Sure, there were pangs of ''what if'' for the second-year running back and team MVP as the season came to a decisive end with a 30-17 loss to Baltimore in the wild-card round last Saturday. Yet while Bell believes his hyperextended right knee would have been good enough to go this weekend if the Steelers had advanced, he'll have to settle for a trip to the Pro Bowl and the growing confidence that deeper playoff runs are coming for a team in the midst of an identity shift.
''For the longest, the Steelers have only been known for defense,'' Bell said. ''This is the first year really the offense has really talked about being a dynamic offense and having playmakers all over the field. We love that. We're definitely going to get better.''
On paper and on the field. Bell set a franchise record for yards from scrimmage, wide receiver Antonio Brown put together the second-highest single-season reception total in NFL history (129) and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger tied Drew Brees for the league lead in yards passing. Pittsburgh finished as the NFL's second-ranked offense and smashed the team mark for points in a season.
Yet out of all those gaudy numbers, the most important ones might be their ages.
Bell is 22. Brown is 26. Rookie Martavis Bryant - who caught nine touchdown passes in 11 games - is 23. All five starters on the offensive line are in their 20s. And while Roethlisberger turns 33 in March, he shows no signs of slowing down.
''The sky's the limit,'' Bryant said when asked about his potential. He might as well have been talking about the other guys in the huddle too.
The sometimes gaudy production came after two painful seasons of restructuring as the offense adjusted to Todd Haley's diverse scheme, Brown developed into one of the NFL's best players and Bell morphed from raw rookie into one of the most versatile weapons in the league. Finding the right chemistry took time and patience. It's a process the Steelers now find themselves making on the other side of the ball.
The transition will likely finally begin in earnest during the offseason. Defensive end Brett Keisel's torn triceps likely means his career is over. Cornerback Ike Taylor will be 35 in May and missed most of the year with forearm and shoulder injuries. Safety Troy Polamalu was slowed by knee issues over the second half of the season and is hardly talking like a guy who plans on spending a 13th fall playing his own unique brand of football.
''Time will tell,'' Polamalu said when asked whether he's going to return.
Oddly, perhaps the most likely candidate to return next season is somebody who began 2014 retired. Linebacker James Harrison needed a solid month to get into shape after re-signing with the Steelers in mid-September but at times looked every bit like the player who was among the NFL's most feared defenders in his prime. The 36-year-old finished third on the team with 5.5 sacks despite playing in just 10 games.
Harrison stressed when he initially came back this would be his last ride. Now he doesn't sound so sure.
''The first few weeks it was a feeling of my body couldn't take this, it couldn't handle this,'' Harrison said. ''Over the course first 3-4 weeks, my body adjusted, started to feel a lot better. ... I don't feel nowhere near (as badly as) I thought I would feel.''
Whether Harrison dons his No. 92 jersey again, however, the torch is all but officially passed. For Pittsburgh to return to the league's elite, the defense doesn't need to be dominant, though it wouldn't hurt. Either way, it is time for the likes of linebackers Jarvis Jones, Sean Spence, Ryan Shazier and safety Shamarko Thomas - all 25 or under, all expected to be leaders of the next wave - to begin the process of building a legacy of their own.
''I think a lot of younger guys took a lot of big steps this year,'' defensive end Cam Heyward said. ''We have to continue to make steps if we want to make the ultimate goal.''
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP-NFL