HOUSTON _ The bye in the first round of the playoffs they'd been seeking all season was there for the taking.
The Steelers went out and got it, and learned some things about themselves in the process.
"This was the closest to our best game, probably, all year that we put together for four straight quarters," running back Le'Veon Bell assessed of Christmas Day's 34-6 drubbing of the Houston Texans. "We came out fast and we finished well.
"And I still feel like we weren't perfect."
They were good enough to secure at least the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs with one regular-season week remaining.
What was gleaned beyond knowing they'd have the first postseason weekend off included:
THEY HAVE THE PREREQUISITE DEPTH:** Wide receiver Antonio Brown (calf) was unavailable, as was guard Ramon Foster (concussion). But quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was still able to throw for 226 yards and complete passes to six different targets while running an offense that scored more than 30 points for the fourth time this season (all in the last six weeks).
"Having 'A.B.' out of the lineup kind of give guys like (wide receiver) Martavis (Bryant) and (wide receiver) JuJu (Smith-Schuster) and (wide receiver) Eli (Rogers) a little opportunity to kind of go out there and really get a little bit more experience, learning different positions and things like that," Bell said. "A lot of guys stepped up and made plays."
The offensive line got right tackle Marcus Gilbert back from his four-game suspension. B.J. Finney replaced Foster at left guard and Chris Hubbard returned to his "No. 74 is eligible" role as an extra tackle/tight end.
Bell said Brown would return for the playoffs.
"I'm 100-percent sure," Bell insisted. "I don't know when but I know he's going to be back for the playoffs. I know how he works. I know there's nothing that's going to hold him out of the playoffs. He's been working hard and I know he'll be back."
CORNERBACK JOE HADEN TRAVELS WELL:** Haden return to the lineup for the first time since suffering a fractured fibula on Nov. 12 at Indianapolis. And this time he followed Texans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins all over the field almost all game long.
"They told me two days ago," Haden said of his new role.
Haden said he regularly switched sides of the field to follow an opponent's best receiver during his seasons in Cleveland.
His first such assignment for the Steelers came against the NFL's leader in receiving TDs (12) and the league's runner-up to Brown in receiving yards (1,313).
Hopkins was held without a catch on two targets in the first half.
He finished with four catches on six targets for 68 yards, including a 38-yard reception and a 3-yard touchdown catch. Hopkins also drew a 3-yard defensive holding penalty on Haden.
"He messed up my day in the second half," Haden said. "It could be better, but we got the 'W,' they had six points, so it wasn't too bad."
Haden maintained he'd welcome such a responsibility in the postseason.
"Whatever they want me to do, I'm ready for it," he said.
THEY'RE UNDERSTANDING HOW TO PLAY WITHOUT RYAN SHAZIER:** The defense allowed a season-low six points in its third complete game without the player safety Sean Davis called "the quarterback of the defense."
They've had to adjust emotionally as well as schematically in Shazier's absence.
"It's always hard for me, and I'm sure it's hard for everybody because everybody's close with 'Shea,' he's just that type of guy," safety Mike Mitchell said. "We gotta do it.
"One thing that I've been trying to do is keep my energy up. It's just one more reason why I'm playing. Obviously, we started the year off, we wanted to win seven (a seventh Vince Lombardi Trophy) just because we're the Pittsburgh Steelers, but we wanted to do it for Mr. (Dan) Rooney. And 'Shea' being one of my best friends, it's just a little bit extra.
"He proved what he's willing to give up for us, just give a little bit more."
Added Davis: "He's such a key contributor, a key part of this defense. We're coping, we're learning how to work around him not being there but we still feel his presence. We still miss him out there but I feel like we're doing a good enough job without him. As the weeks go on we'll continue to mesh, get good chemistry and continue to work well together. But losing 'Shea,' man, it's still big for us."
Game action photos from the Pittsburgh Steelers' Week 16 game against the Houston Texans
THEY CAN TAKE A PUNCH:** Because of what was at stake, because of who they were playing and because of the way the game had ended, the 27-24 loss the Steelers had absorbed on Dec. 17 to the Patriots wasn't just another loss.
The Steelers shook it off and responded.
"Guys came to play," guard David DeCastro said. "Especially after that tough game last week, emotionally that was one of the hardest ones I've been a part of. You could tell at practice a little bit, guys were down. But nevertheless they came out to pay after a three-hour flight, on Christmas, all the variables, came out and found a way to win."
THEY SAID IT:** "We didn't do anything that we weren't supposed to do. We did exactly what we were supposed to do. Obviously, the real test is going to be when we get in the playoffs we gotta be playing at a high level. Their record reflected what the scoreboard was. Our record reflected what the scoreboard was. Hats off to them, they're competitors. DeAndre Hopkins is a monster, lotta respect for him, got a lot of respect for that team. It was a good win for us but we did what we were supposed to do." _ Mitchell.
"James was a great legend, man. At the end of the day, whatever Coach (head coach Mike Tomlin) calls it, if he cuts me tomorrow, I just have to live with it. We adjusted really well. When you lose that type of player, man, honestly, man, it (stinks), because of what he meant to us, how cool he was to be around. But at the end of the day this is the NFL, we see tough decisions every day." _ Center Maurkice Pouncey on the release of outside linebacker James Harrison.