Stairway to 7? Steelers go all-in to chase down Patriots

PITTSBURGH (AP) Ben Roethlisberger insists his lengthy flirtation with retirement last spring was very real. And while the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback ultimately opted to return for a 14th season, Roethlisberger's two months of radio silence while he pondered his future sent a very clear message.

The window for the Steelers to reach a fourth Super Bowl during the Roethlisberger era is open. But not for much longer.

''I commit myself 110 percent and I will do that throughout the season,'' Roethlisberger said in August. ''But I'm not going to look past, let alone the season, but look past today.''

There's no need. The team that will sprint onto the field with Roethlisberger in Cleveland for the opener is arguably the most talented of Roethlisberger's career. The offense is littered with playmakers at every skill position, and the line is perhaps the best in the league. There are questions on defense, but the bold move to sign two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden offered tangible proof to New England and the rest of the NFL that the Steelers are aggressively trying to close the seemingly impregnable gap between themselves and the Patriots.

The stakes are simple. There will be a trip to Minneapolis in February for a shot at a Super Bowl ring or there will be misery. There is no middle ground.

''Yeah expectations are high. They need to be,'' Roethlisberger said.

Pittsburgh's combination of talent and experience really leaves little choice. The Steelers have methodically risen back to relevance after coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert rebuilt the franchise on the fly in 2012 and 2013. Pittsburgh reached the wild-card round in 2014, the divisional round in 2015. Last season ended with a one-sided loss to New England in the AFC championship game, but star running back Le'Veon Bell was hurt.

''Every year we get a step closer,'' Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown said.

One last one remains. If Roethlisberger remains healthy, Pittsburgh has the firepower to take it.

Wide receiver Martavis Bryant is back after missing all of 2016 due to a drug suspension. Bell ended his protest over being unable to reach a long-term deal in the offseason by returning to the team on Labor Day weekend. Bell will play under the franchise tag this season eager to prove he's worth even more than the $12.1 million he is guaranteed this fall. First-round pick T.J. Watt has looked every bit as good as advertised as the long-awaited heir apparent at outside linebacker to the seemingly ageless James Harrison. Haden and Artie Burns could give Pittsburgh its best cornerback tandem since it won its last Super Bowl eight years ago.

The pieces are in place. Time to see how they all fit.

A quick look at what the Steelers need to turn potential into a mid-February parade:

JOE'S PLACE: The eternally rebuilding Browns decided late in training camp that the process wouldn't include Haden, one of the franchise's few bright spots in recent years. Enter the Steelers, who offered Haden $27 million to move about two hours southeast. Haden, still only 28, could have commanded a higher salary elsewhere but settled on the Steelers because they offered his best chance at a championship.

''This just feels like it's going to be something special,'' Haden said.

UNITED FRONT: Pittsburgh ensured it would keep the line of Alejandro Villanueva, Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro and Marcus Gilbert together when it signed Villanueva to a four-year extension as camp began. The group allowed Roethlisberger to be sacked just 17 times last season, a career low. On an offense filled with seemingly indispensable parts, Roethlisberger is the one Pittsburgh truly can't win without. If the front five can keep him upright, the Steelers are the AFC's best chance to end New England's vice grip on the conference.

BAD BLOOD?: Bell led the NFL in average yards from scrimmage last season, combining for more than 150 a game. Pittsburgh relied on him heavily down the stretch as it ripped off nine straight victories to reach the conference championship. Yet a groin injury forced Bell to watch most of the AFC title game from the sideline. He underwent surgery but also spent seven months away from the team during a contract stalemate. He spent his vacation working out on his own and producing rap songs touting his greatness - and his asking price. While his teammates understand it was just business, Bell's extended absence could become an issue if it takes him time to get back up to speed.

WATT'S UP: Watt, the younger brother of Houston Texans star J.J. Watt, made an auspicious debut when he picked up sacks in two of his first four snaps during the preseason. Watt and Bud Dupree will get extended run at outside linebacker. Their development will go a long way toward determining whether Pittsburgh's defense can be ''dominant,'' the word Tomlin used to describe the group's potential when camp began, one he did not choose by accident.

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

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