|National Football League|
Steelers enter playoffs with depth and momentum
By WILL GRAVES
PITTSBURGH (AP) JuJu Smith-Schuster didn't catch a snap of the 2017 AFC championship game.
Life out in Los Angeles was just a little too hectic as the wide receiver prepared for the NFL draft.
Martavis Bryant skipped out on it too, in part because of the pain of missing out while serving a one-year suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy was a bit too acute.
A year removed from New England's clinical domination of the Pittsburgh Steelers on their way to the Super Bowl on that snowy night in Foxborough last January, all four find themselves playing vital roles in Pittsburgh's effort to finally unseat Tom Brady and company.
With their Pro Bowl teammates taking the afternoon off in Sunday's regular-season finale against Cleveland to rest up for the playoffs, all four showcased why they'll be needed over the next month if the Steelers (13-3) want to end New England's long run at the top.
Smith-Schuster piled up 265 all-purpose yards, returned a kickoff for a touchdown and caught Landry Jones' pass for another score in Pittsburgh's 28-24 victory .
Bryant tied a season high with six receptions to cap a resurgent stretch in which he caught 29 passes and a pair of touchdowns over the final six weeks.
Haden returned from a fractured fibula that threatened to disrupt his season by providing Pittsburgh's secondary with a steadying presence while Artie Burns struggled in his second season.
Haden embraced change when he signed with the Steelers in August after seven years in Cleveland, and the Steelers repaid his respect by making him the lone game captain on Sunday while facing his former team.
Alualu had the first multiple sack game of his eight-year career against the Browns, including the one that gave the Steelers 56 on the season, a franchise record.
The giddy celebration after Alualu took down Cleveland's DeShone Kizer early in the fourth quarter provided Alualu with a reminder on why he signed with Pittsburgh after seven seasons in Jacksonville.
"Just being around these guys, this atmosphere, I knew I wanted to be around these talks just so that it kind of changes my mentality of where I came from," Alualu said.
"I'm not saying I'm used to being a loser or anything like that, but it was definitely different being around this group and I just wanted to feed off of that. Hopefully we can keep going and get that ring."
That's been the mission since the second the Patriots finished off their 36-17 dissection of the Steelers 49 weeks ago.
Pittsburgh limped through that game with a depleted wide receiving group, a secondary that looked overmatched at times and a pass rush that did little to disrupt Brady.
That won't be the case when the Steelers open the playoffs on Jan. 14. Bryant's return and Smith-Schuster's arrival have given the Steelers a complement to star Antonio Brown they didn't have last season.
While Brown is recovering from a left calf injury suffered in a close loss to the Patriots on Dec. 17, he appears to be close to returning. The NFL's leading receiver posted video on Instagram Monday showing him walking briskly on a treadmill.
Pittsburgh's best chance at reaching the Super Bowl in Minneapolis next month is with Brown's No. 84 on the field.
Yet the past two weeks have shown the Steelers have the versatility to survive and perhaps even thrive even if he's limited.
Smith-Schuster and Bryant were spectacular against New England and kept it going against Houston and Cleveland.
"I wish everybody had a JuJu in their life," left tackle Alejandro Villanueva said.
The 21-year-old Smith-Schuster is the league's youngest player and he's spent most of his rookie season documenting his acclimation to life in the NFL, episodes that include putting together some of the league's most entertaining touchdown celebrations , losing his bicycle, having Villanueva teach him how to drive and adopting a French Bulldog named Boujee.
It makes for a good time to be sure, but it's Smith-Schuster's precocious talent and not his outsized personality that has given Pittsburgh the biggest boost.
The contributions of Haden, Bryant and Alualu have been less dramatic but in many ways no less important. The Steelers will need their stars to be stars.
"We expect our guys to win," Heyward said. "They're drafted here and they're picked because (general manager) Kevin Colbert and (coach) Mike Tomlin decided they should be here ... Now we have to get back to this tournament we're going to go into."
A tournament in which Pittsburgh's many bold-faced names will need to play up to their pedigree if the Steelers want to win.
Yet if they falter, Pittsburgh has the kind of depth it lacked a year ago while eyeing a rematch with the Patriots that only an upset can prevent.
"There's no difference (in expectations) whether the starters are playing or the backups are playing," Villanueva said.
"Everybody has a standard they have to meet. It speaks volumes of what Coach Tomlin and the organization have done with everybody on the roster."
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Updated January 1, 2018