32 to 1: Could Steelers be an AFC North dark horse? (VIDEO)

No NFL postseason contender — not the Broncos, the Patriots and likely not even the Seahawks —wanted to see the Steelers make the playoffs last year, but Pittsburgh came awfully darn close in the end.

After starting the 2013 season with an uncharacteristic 0-4 record, Pittsburgh finished the year playing some of the best football in the league and winning six of its last eight games. Alas, Mike Tomlin’s squad finished with its second straight 8-8 record, missing the playoffs and marking the franchise’s longest absence from the postseason since it failed to qualify from 1998 through 2000.

There are high expectations in Steel City, and in the 40th-anniversary season of the 1974 team that won the franchise’s first Super Bowl, the fan base is looking for a much better result than 8-8.

The Steelers enter the season undoubtedly younger and faster than they were a season ago. The team was uncharacteristically active in free agency this offseason, adding veterans Mike Mitchell, Cam Thomas, Lance Moore, and LeGarrette Blount while maintaining a level of consistency by signing deals with veterans Jason Worilds, Heath Miller, Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor. Rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier is expected to contribute right from the start, with recent draft picks Jarvis Jones, Cameron Heyward and David DeCastro expected to take on bigger roles.

Pittsburgh’s roster, solid just about everywhere, has two question marks at the offensive tackle positions. This is nothing new for Ben Roethlisberger, a grossly underrated quarterback who’s played behind questionable offensive lines for the bulk of his NFL career. The expected starters at left and right tackle are Kelvin Beachum and Marcus Gilbert. Neither player will be mistaken for the next Orlando Pace anytime soon.

Tomlin is one of the best coaches in the league, Roethlisberger is a gamer, and the defense should be faster and hungrier than it was a season ago. The core unit is back, with key additions all over the field. No one wanted to face the Steelers at the end of 2013. I can’t imagine foes wanting to line up against them in 2014, either.  

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