PITTSBURGH -- As the NFL season shuts down and the Boston streets finally are cleared of confetti, the Pittsburgh Steelers are left wondering how sweet this week must have been for the team that exposed them.
The AFC title game loss to the New England Patriots reminded us how close and how far the Steelers are from a seventh Super Bowl win. New England looks stronger than ever, with a quarterback who somehow is peaking at 39. But that wet night in Foxborough three weeks ago can embolden a team suddenly drenched in humility.
In the next seven months, the Steelers can refine a near-finished product that's approaching full strength after the franchise's last Super Bowl appearance in 2010.
That starts with five tweaks:
• Get a full arsenal for Ben Roethlisberger: The frustration from last season boiled over when Roethlisberger flirted with retirement during an interview on 93.7 The Fan after the Patriots loss. While people in the Steelers organization don't expect him to retire, Big Ben's public stance raises the heart level. The message: Get better. A good place to start is with the complementary passing game. Work to make sure electric Martavis Bryant stays out of trouble upon his return from suspension, then sign or draft an additional playmaker at tight end or wide receiver for good measure.
• Get more coverage help: Rookies Artie Burns and Sean Davis played a combined 1,550 defensive snaps, experience that will prove invaluable next year. The starting quartet of Burns, Davis, Ross Cockrell and Mike Mitchell seems to be settling into a groove. But adding another pure cover corner alongside Burns would give the Steelers more options to mix man and zone coverages. Hey, maybe Tom Brady can beat either look. Throw everything at him anyway. A valuable free agent at a reasonable rate could work here.
• Go bold in the draft: With most of the positional needs met save maybe pass-rusher, the Steelers have an opportunity to get creative. It's time for a change-of-pace running back to alleviate the load on Le'Veon Bell or a lanky tight end in a deep draft year at the position, in case Ladarius Green doesn't return to form. Serve up a Dak Prescott quarterback special late in Day 2 or early in Day 3.
• Re-sign these four players: Armed with $30-plus million in cap space, the Steelers would be prudent to bring back Bell and Antonio Brown, even if Bell returns on the franchise tag. But make sure to give Lawrence Timmons and James Harrison chances to return without overpaying. Harrison just grossly outplayed his two-year, $2.75 million deal. He has every right to ask for more. But both sides need each other and should be able to work something out. And don't count out special teams dynamo Shamarko Thomas returning.
• Figure out what it takes to beat high-level passers: The Steelers' nine-game winning streak was admirable, but most of the damage came against unimpressive quarterbacks. The Steelers went 1-3 against quarterbacks with top-10 passer ratings in 2016. Meanwhile, Brady and Aaron Rodgers await on the 2017 schedule. When the defensive coaches grind out film this offseason, identifying the proper personnel to fluster -- or at least contain -- the top passers should be a primary focus.