With regular season over, Steelers prepare for Super Bowl push
The longest part of the journey is over for the Steelers. Now comes the most difficult part.
After wrapping up their most successful regular season since 2004 on Sunday with a 28-24 win over the Cleveland Browns, the Steelers (13-3) have their sights set on one destination.
"It's Minnesota," said guard Ramon Foster, referring to the site of Super Bowl LII.
The big game is in February, but it will be the work that takes place in January that determines if the Steelers return to the Super Bowl for a ninth time with a chance to claim a seventh Lombardi Trophy.
Thanks to a first-round bye, the Steelers won't open postseason play until Jan. 14. The opponent won't be known until the conclusion of the wild-card game Sunday between No. 3 seed Jacksonville and No. 6 Buffalo.
A Buffalo victory would bring the Kansas City-Tennessee winner to Heinz Field the following weekend. A Jacksonville win would bring the Jaguars back for a rematch from Week 5. The Jaguars ran all over the Steelers that October day, and Ben Roethlisberger threw a career-high five interceptions in a 30-9 loss.
"We have to get ready to work, come back to Heinz Field and start the playoffs on the right foot," left tackle Alejandro Villanueva said. "This is the National Football League. There are a lot of variables that are going to be happening between now and then. As a team, we have to get healthy and stay focused because we have a pretty intense run coming up."
Coach Mike Tomlin rested Roethlisberger, running back Le'Veon Bell, guard David DeCastro, center Maurkice Pouncey and defensive end Cam Heyward against the Browns. The rest will give those players nearly three weeks off between games. Wide receiver Antonio Brown, the NFL's receiving yardage leader despite missing two games with a lower-leg contusion, could return in time for the divisional round.
"My approach is not going to change," Heyward said. "I'm going to go hard. I'm going to hustle to the ball. We have multiple guys that are going to do that. I don't think rust is going to set in because we know what we've got do so."
So does Tomlin, who is treating the time off like anything but a bye week.
When the Steelers had their break in the middle of the season, Tomlin brought his players in for light practices Tuesday and Wednesday, then gave them a four-day break. This week, the Steelers have regular practices scheduled Wednesday, Thursday and Friday — the same routine as in a typical game week.
It was mentioned to Foster that when the Steelers returned from their bye week in November, they got off to a slow start at Indianapolis and trailed by 14 points in the fourth quarter before rallying for a last-second 20-17 victory.
"It's a different week and a different situation in the bye," Foster said. "We'll be all right."
The Steelers played all three potential playoff opponents in the regular season, which should make it easier to formulate a game plan after this weekend's wild-card results are known.
"You can prepare to play a team in the NFL in a week. That's fair," Villanueva said. "The first week will be to make sure we are healthy and get focused. We understand a lot of teams in the NFL are packing their bags right now, but there are a few teams that are getting ready to go into this single-elimination tournament.
"For us, it's time to lock in and take this as seriously as we can. We know how hard it is to get there."
That mantra even holds true for the Steelers' younger players such as rookie first-round draft pick T.J. Watt. He watched oldest brother J.J's team, the Houston Texans, finish with a 4-12 record. His other brother, Derek, a fullback for the Los Angeles Chargers, missed out on a wild-card berth because of a tiebreaker despite a 9-7 record.
"I know it's tough," Watt said. "Coaches talk about it all the time that you never know if you're going to get back here again. We should really cherish this moment and be hungry."
The Steelers achieved most of the goals for the regular season that they established in the spring. They went undefeated in the AFC North and won the division easily. They secured a first-round bye. The only goal that went unchecked was collecting the coveted No. 1 seed, which means their path to the Super Bowl might have to run through New England for a second year in a row.
This year, though, the Steelers won't be happy just to return to the AFC championship game. They want to go further. Two wins further.
As Heyward said, "We're searching for something greater than this."
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.