Five reasons Steelers will be even tougher contenders in 2016

PITTSBURGH -- Sunday in Denver was a lost opportunity, but there won't be many teams with more 2016 upside than the Steelers.

Here are five reasons:

No major free-agency issues: The Steelers can keep the core of their roster intact for next season, and decisions to keep valuable veterans -- cornerback William Gay and offensive guard Ramon Foster, for example -- wouldn't be costly. While they've been pressed against the cap in previous years, the Steelers should have breathing room this offseason. David DeCastro and Le'Veon Bell each have a year left on their deals, but otherwise most of the Steelers' top options have at least two years left. The roster won't be stripped.

The obvious one -- health: The Steelers are high on Fitzgerald Toussaint, but his late-game fumble in Denver reminded that injuries finally caught up to this team. Put Le'Veon Bell or DeAngelo Williams in that situation and they probably aren't fumbling there. The Steelers still put up 396 yards on the league's best defense without those two backs or Antonio Brown. This offense still occasionally stalls in the red zone, but moving the ball is rarely a problem. With a full arsenal next year, yards and points will continue to pour in.

Young core developing on defense: The first-round trio of Jarvis Jones, Ryan Shazier and Bud Dupree looked inspired in two playoff games. So did Stephon Tuitt, a second-round pick. Jones made a late-season push, and Shazier showcased his range. He's settled down a bit after struggling with the intricacies of the defense early in his career. There's enough evidence that the defensive rebuild is working. I've been hard on the secondary at times, but they held their own over the last month. The Steelers' defense played well enough to win each week late in the year, giving up three touchdowns in its final three games.

Easier schedule: This one's dangerous because previous-year performance always seems like a bad barometer for future success. But playing the AFC East and NFC East seems like an easier climb than in the 2015 regular season, when the Steelers played five of the seven other teams from last weekend's divisional playoff. Two of the best teams on the schedule -- New England and Kansas City -- play in Heinz Field next season.

Playoff pedigree: The Steelers got their first playoff win in five seasons, but after three Super Bowl appearances from 2005 to 2010, a playoff win won't be enough. The Steelers took the Broncos loss hard. They weren't in the mood for nice-season sentiments Sunday night. Coach Mike Tomlin was emotional when addressing players in the locker room. "We'll take this loss," guard Ramon Foster said. Yep, they'll wear it for the next eight months. The expectation in Pittsburgh is always clear-cut, but 2016 will have enough momentum to validate the Super Bowl-or-bust stance.