Yes, this might actually be the last game the Killer Bs play in Pittsburgh

Enjoy this weekend. The Steelers could look very different soon.

NFL: AFC Wild Card-Miami Dolphins at Pittsburgh Steelers
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A lot can happen in the next two weeks. The Steelers could lose to the Jaguars Sunday. They probably won’t, but they could. The Steelers could win and go to New England and beat the Patriots to get to the Super Bowl. The probably won’t, but they could. Heck, the Titans could overcome insurmountable odds to beat New England this week and then the Steelers could actually host the AFC title game next week. So sure, this might not be the last game of the season in Pittsburgh, but chances are it is. And chances are, it’s the last for the Killer Bs.

The Steelers published comments from Ben Roethlisberger’s this week when he was asked if he’ll savor this game more, knowing it may be the last at Heinz Field.

“You have to treat every game like it could be your last, because you never know when it is. We saw an example of that earlier in the season with Ryan (Shazier). You never know when it could be your last. Hoping it’s not his last. You have to go out and play every play, and enjoy every play and game, like it’s your last.”

When asked, specifically, if barring injury like Ryan Shazier, this might be his last game in Pittsburgh, Roethlisberger said uh…no?

“I am not thinking about that right now. I don’t think it is my last. I am not thinking about that. I am going out to play this one and give it everything I have.”

He did say no. And he also said he’s not thinking about it. Following his answer in order, he technically said he’s not thinking about it, no, he’s not thinking about it and that he’s going to give it everything he has, which might be an indication, yes, he’s thinking about it.

The natural pullout from those comments, which became the big headline around NFL circles this week, was that Roethlisberger said, “I don’t think it is my last” game in Pittsburgh. (Perhaps he thinks the Patriots will lose this weekend.)

Truthfully, though, fans have to go into Sunday’s game thinking that, win or lose, it could be Roethlisberger’s last. The retirement conversation has been going on for too long for him not to be very serious about walking away after this season. And, look, even in his first comment about this possibly being his last game he brought up the horrific circumstances of Shazier’s injury. That’s reason enough for a player at Roethlisberger’s age and stature to call it quits, seeing something like that happen to a young teammate with such a bright future.

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers
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The Steelers have all the makings of a Super Bowl team. They’re good enough to win it all. This is their year. But New England is in the way, again, and if the Steelers can’t beat the Patriots in the playoffs this year — let alone if they lose to Blake Bortles and the Jaguars — what’s to say Roethlisberger will come back, knowing they’ll probably have to go through Tom Brady and the Pats again next year?

Roethlisberger is already a Hall of Famer. He’s got plenty of accolades, both team and personal. It feels like we’re as close as he’s ever been to hanging it up. And part of the reason is because, as good as the Steelers are right now, there is no guarantee they’ll look the same next year.

Antonio Brown is in the midst of a legendary half decade-long run at receiver, but at some point, his returns are going to diminish. Few receivers in NFL history have had a run of more than five years like the five Brown is having. If the Steelers don’t win the Super Bowl this year, getting one more season with Brown at his best could be reason enough for Roethlisberger to come back. But even if Ben and Brown are back, it’s anyone’s guess if Le’Veon Bell will also be here.

Bell told ESPN that he would consider sitting out an entire season if he gets franchise tagged next year. The 2018 season could be the second-straight franchise contract for Bell, which would put his earnings at around $14.5 million. But that’s a one-year deal, and Bell can walk after that.

Remember, Bell turned down a deal this season worth a reported $30 million over the first two years because the team wouldn’t guarantee a long-term contract he feels he was worth. He opted to play under this year’s $12.1 million franchise tag.

Given Jeremy Fowler’s clarifying tweet, above, you can tell he doesn’t love the headline ESPN put on his piece — that Bell might sit out or retire if franchised again. Still, that’s out there. Bell said it. And given the fact he held out all preseason this season, it’s clear he means it.

Bell took to Twitter to defend himself, or at least clarify his own comments, putting the focus on winning a Super Bowl this year. The Steelers are two games away from getting back to the Super Bowl where they’d likely be favorites over any team to come out of the NFC, outside of perhaps the Vikings given the Super Bowl is in Minnesota this year. Bell stated, very clearly, that he’s only focused on bringing back a ring to Pittsburgh. “What happens next year,” he wrote, “is irrelevant to my goals.”

And yet, the Steelers won’t have a lot of time to think about next year after this one’s over. The window to franchise tag players opens just after the Super Bowl, so decisions for the future of the franchise have already begun. The Steelers invested a ton of money in Brown last year, and it stands to reason they’d be in line to give Bell a long-term deal as well, but he’s asking for more money and a longer deal than any running back has ever received. Given Bell’s inability to stay on the field over the course of his career, it’s a big gamble, as good as he is.

The sensible plan for the team would be to franchise him again, then let him walk after next year. But if Bell refuses to show up, that plan is dead.

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers
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Martavis Bryant, it’s worth mentioning, is heading into 2018 on the last year of his contract, and he said before the trade deadline he had hoped to be dealt or he’ll pay out next year with no intention of re-signing. The Steelers already have his replacement in tow, as JuJu Smith-Schuster has become a huge part of the offense as a rookie, but it’s clear the expiration date on this core group of offensive players is getting closer.

One thing that could keep Roethlisberger in town is that he barely took any hits this season. The offensive line only allowed 65 hits on their quarterbacks this year, 5th-best in the NFL. As banged up as Ben has been in his career, he should feel pretty good, all things considered. That said, last season the offensive line only allowed 56 hits, and he still felt pretty beaten down. Now, at almost 36, the hits might have finally taken enough of a toll.

If it’s not this year, Steelers fans have to go into this postseason knowing it’s certainly next. And Roethlisberger has to look at where the Steelers are right now — even with a possible trip to New England in the way of a Super Bowl berth — and know this is his best shot at a Super Bowl. Win two games and you’re in. Win three, and the ring on the other thumb will have company.

So with that logic in mind, even if it’s not the last time this group suits up in Pittsburgh, fans should head to Heinz Field this weekend thinking it is. And Roethlisberger, Bell, Brown and their teammates, should line up on the field expecting it might be.