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Great Expectations

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It's not very often that a Steelers season ends with a last-second playoff loss and most fans are satisfied.

Historically, when a team gives up a fourth-quarter lead that costs them a chance to play in the AFC Championship game, there are a lot of ticked off fans.

Not that the Steelers faithful were happy in the days following the team’s 23-16 loss to Denver in January, but there was a genuine feeling of optimism.

Pittsburgh fans were quick to understand that playing without the league's best receiver, the team's top two running backs—not to mention a one-armed quarterback left to do the heavy lifting—were not excuses for the loss. They were, however, facts that changed the way the loss was processed.

But no matter how good fans allowed themselves to feel after the loss in Denver, the season still came to a sudden end that day. Nothing can be done about it until this fall.

If the early returns are to be believed, the good feelings may very well extend throughout the 2016 season and deep into the early weeks of 2017.

It's not just Pittsburgh fans feeling that way. The national media already has the Steelers pegged as a Super Bowl contender next season. So does Las Vegas.

The Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook has installed the Steelers (8-1 odds) as co-favorites, along with the Seahawks and Patriots, to win Super Bowl LI at NRG Stadium in Houston.

There is reason for the optimism.

The weapons that comprised one of 2015's most dangerous offenses are back. So too are center Maurkice Pouncey and running back Le'Veon Bell, two of the NFL’s best players at their respective positions.

Offensive linemen Ramon Foster and Kelvin Beachum are unrestricted free agents and must be re-signed, but the team has some flexibility there. Beachum was on his way to a big pay day before he suffered a torn ACL last fall. That unfortunate injury could benefit the Steelers in terms of the cost to re-sign him. Beachum is also versatile enough to move inside should the Steelers lose Foster, and Alejandro Villanueva proved serviceable on the outside should the Steelers lose Beachum.

Tight end Jesse James made significant progress and a rookie and, with the retirement of Heath Miller, could be in line for a much bigger role in the passing game. All signs point to a serious breakout season for Martavis Bryant, while Antonio Brown is in the prime of an elite-level career. Markus Wheaton is solid and Sammie Coates is emerging.

Defensively, Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt are on their way to becoming the best bookends in the AFC. A young group of linebackers, led by Ryan Shazier, appears to be on the verge of wreaking havoc on opposing quarterbacks across the league.

The secondary, of course, was the Achilles heel. But safety Mike Mitchell (despite playing with injuries) and cornerback William Gay (if re-signed) provide stability that the team should be able to build around.

That all sounds great, but it also changes things as the team enters the 2016 offseason.

Expectations are now high; very high – "Super Bowl or bust" high.

But when you're the Pittsburgh Steelers, that's exactly how it should be.

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