DALLAS - The Steelers fought hard all season to reach the Super Bowl - and lose.
Now it seems as though it would be extremely difficult for the Steelers to make a return trip to the NFL's championship game in Indianapolis next season - if there is a next season.
The Steelers' roster contains many key players, especially on defense, who are at least 30 years old, and the prospects of them enduring another tough season in order to play in Super Bowl XLVI aren't outstanding.
But let's not count them out just yet - many had counted them out before the 2010 season. Maybe the 31-25 Super Bowl XLV loss to the Green Bay Packers on Sunday night at Cowboys Stadium will serve as motivation for the team in 2011.
"There is a lot more football left in us,'' said Steelers inside linebacker James Farrior, who recently turned 36. "We just have to stay together. Hopefully, everything works out in the offseason and we get back here [to the Super Bowl] next season.''
The NFL first has to settle its labor dispute. The current collective bargaining agreement between the owners and players expires on March 3, and the owners are threatening to lock out the players if an agreement is not reached.
That would put a hold on free-agent signings, and the Steelers have a few of their own to address. Assuming a labor contract is finalized, the Steelers' main priorities will be to try and re-sign outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley, cornerback Ike Taylor and offensive tackle Willie Colon, who missed the season after tearing his Achilles tendon.
Wide receiver Hines Ward will turn 35 next month and said he's coming back for at least another season, and soon-to-be 35-year-old defensive end Aaron Smith will attempt to overcome a torn triceps.
Other key Steelers who will start the 2011 season in their 30s are nose tackle Casey Hampton, safeties Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark, defensive end Brett Keisel, linebacker James Harrison and Taylor.
"I think we still have a core group of players that we can build around and hopefully make another run at it,'' Steelers president Art Rooney II said. "I don't think we'll be sitting there saying we're going to make a lot of changes. We'll prepare for the draft and add some players here and there, and be ready to go.''
The Steelers will also have quarterback Ben Roethlisberger at the beginning of the season, barring another suspension, and they'll have left tackle Max Starks and center Maurkice Pouncey returning from injuries. They also have a number of younger guys who were key contributors this year, including Pouncey.
"Our goal is to try to get into [the Super Bowl] again - just don't be on [the losing] side again,'' second-year receiver Mike Wallace said. "Just get back in the lab and work harder - that's all.''
The loss to the Packers exposed some weaknesses with the team - they need to find some depth at cornerback, Rashard Mendenhall has to take better care of the football, and they have to be a more disciplined team and not get as many foolish penalties.
But if the Steelers are going to make a run at topping all of the best teams the AFC has to offer again, just maybe the Super Bowl XLV loss will serve as the impetus toward that goal.
"It's just important for us to rebound - take this loss,'' Polamalu said. "It's incredibly humbling. God willing, in some way we'll be benefited by this.''
Buck Frank can be reached at 946-7461 or firstname.lastname@example.org.