Labriola On

Labriola on the win over the Browns

Their regular season is over, and it ended according to the plan, that plan being a seventh straight win that gave them an 11-5 record and with all of their key players in good health.

Those were the only elements of Week 17 of the 2016 NFL regular season the Steelers could control, because their opponent in the Wild Card Round depended upon the outcome of New England at Miami, and the date and time of that game was going to be subject to the whims of the NFL and its broadcast partners. Those issues wouldn't be clarified until close to midnight, after Green Bay defeated Detroit, and when the white smoke appeared the Steelers were scheduled to host the Miami Dolphins at 1 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 8.

Their 11th victory on the season, and the seventh in a winning streak that was their response to a four-game losing streak, was by 27-24 over the Cleveland Browns, and that the Steelers needed overtime to accomplish it should be viewed as more of a compliment than a criticism. So much of the resiliency that has been a quality of these Steelers over the course of this regular season was on display against the 1-15 Browns, with two fourth quarter touchdowns serving as the impetus that got them into overtime and then a nine-play, 75-yard touchdown drive in response to a Browns field goal serving to seal the deal.

Winning was important for the Steelers yesterday, because winning football games is seen as the franchise business, but what made this particular victory significant at this point in time was that they were able to achieve it without exposing several of their star players to any punishment on the final weekend before the playoffs begin. Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell, Antonio Brown, Maurkice Pouncey, and William Gay were given the afternoon off by Coach Mike Tomlin, and if the 55,921 who decided to spend New Year's Day at Heinz Field could allow themselves to be excited about Landry Jones-to-Landry Jones for the game-winner in overtime, Tomlin can be excited about entering the postseason with Ben, Bell, and Brown healthy for a playoff game for the first time since they all became Steelers.

Game action from Week 17 against the Cleveland Browns.

And really, the Steelers' injury report was all that really mattered at the end of yesterday. Beating the Browns was nice because it continued the winning streak and reinforced some of the things we have come to believe about the qualities of this particular group of Steelers, but what happened yesterday became completely insignificant as soon as the scoreboard clock reached triple zeroes.

What's important now is the playoffs, and what's the most notable difference this time for the Steelers is having Le'Veon Bell healthy and playing well. Voted MVP by his teammates last week, Bell provides a dimension this offense has lacked in each of the past two postseasons. Just remember, in 2014, it was Josh Harris and Ben Tate in the backfield; and in 2015, it was Fitz Toussaint and Jordan Todman. In 2016, they will enter the postseason with the most complete running back in football.

"He delivered for us and delivered for us time and time again, particularly in the thick of the schedule when we were facing adversity and needed 'A' players to play 'A,'" said Tomlin. "He played 'A.' It's one thing to deliver positive contributions to our effort. It's another thing to step into a stadium with a target on you in the way he does week in and week out in terms of the opponent's commitment to minimize his impact on the game, and he still has the impact on the game. I think that his teammates understand and respect that, and I think that's why they voted him MVP."

In many ways, statistics are for losers, but in Bell's case the numbers strengthen Tomlin's assessment. During the six-game winning streak that ended with clinching the AFC North on Christmas Day, Bell had 36 touches in Cleveland, and then 27 more in Indianapolis four days later. Then it was 35 against the Giants, 42 in Buffalo, 28 against the Bengals in Cincinnati, and then 23 against the Ravens.

An impressive workload, yes, but it went beyond that. At that stage of the season, the Steelers offense was without an experienced, playmaking wide receiver to pair with Antonio Brown. Opposing defenses were aware of this and deployed their resources accordingly, but despite their best efforts Bell continued to produce. Seven touchdowns in those six victories, right around 5 yards a carry, an average of five receptions per win. And he never gets tired, he never taps out of a game. Never.

The 2016 regular season is over, and the Steelers finished it 11-5 as AFC North champions. They also closed with seven straight wins, and the grit and resiliency they showed in securing the seventh made the time commitment on a New Year's Day seem worthwhile. But if you want to get excited about their prospects for this postseason, look no farther than No. 26.

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