What Ben Roethlisberger's return says about the Steelers' future (he likes it)

PITTSBURGH -- Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger crossed paths in a devastated locker room and exchanged friendly pats.

"We'll get there," Roethlisberger told the game's top receiver after a 45-42 loss to the Jaguars that not many outside of Jacksonville's locker room expected.

This imperfect but wildly entertaining Pittsburgh Steelers team fell a game shorter than it did a year ago, but Roethlisberger's tone seemed far more positive this time.

Last January, he openly wondered if the AFC title game stage were too big for younger offensive players, and he announced on his radio show that he would take time to evaluate his future. Fast-forward to Sunday, and Roethlisberger wasted no time reassuring Steelers fans.

"I definitely have a desire to play football. I love this game. I love these guys. It's tough, it stings, you hate to lose at home. I feel bad because I feel like I let the fans down, let my teammates down," he said following Sunday's loss. "I don't know about contracts and who's coming back, but I know the guys up front are, and that makes it good for me, so I look forward to next year with those guys."

Roethlisberger's comments are significant for several reasons, most notably that they clear up any uncertainty in the offseason. Roethlisberger announced his return for a 14th season last April, so it was reasonable to wonder if he planned a similar approach this time around as he evaluated his future.

Here's why this situation feels different: Despite the ugly Jacksonville game, Roethlisberger has every reason to like this team, particularly on offense. His comments reflect that.

Roethlisberger's two turnovers cost 14 points, but putting up 42 points on Jacksonville is impressive in any setting. Brown is clearly the game's best receiver. Le'Veon Bell is the game's most productive running back. JuJu Smith-Schuster and Martavis Bryant form an ideal supporting cast at receiver. Roethlisberger found a late-season rhythm with tight end Vance McDonald, whose 10 catches for 112 yards Sunday nearly matched his regular-season totals of 14 catches for 188 yards.

As Roethlisberger gleefully cited, the entire starting offensive line is under contract for next season.

Roethlisberger was one of the first to note that the defense was bailing out the Steelers early in the season while the offense regained its footing. He and the offense spent the previous three years trying to outscore teams as Mike Tomlin and the front office rebuilt the defense. Jacksonville exposed weaknesses in the Steelers' run defense, but after 56 sacks during the regular season, there are signs of improvement.

Bell, who is a free agent in March, said the Steelers "definitely" have the right players for another run.

"We get everybody healthy, it can be even more special," Bell said. "Hopefully we get a lot of people back and make a run next year. We’ve got the talent. It will be fun."

Roethlisberger seems to agree, and that gives the Steelers at least one more season with a high-level quarterback while they sort out a succession plan.