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Martavis Bryant suspension hurts Big Ben's MVP odds

Even without All-Pro tailback Le'Veon Bell, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was leading a historically prolific offensive attack for stretches of last season.

With Bell returning to full health, Martavis Bryant joining Antonio Brown as the NFL's most dynamic wide receiver duo, and field-stretching tight end Ladarius Green adding yet another vertical weapon to stress defenses, Roethlisberger was poised to make a serious run at the first MVP award of his sterling 13-year career in 2016.

A playmaking machine, Bryant exploded for a career-high 194 yards from scrimmage in Pittsburgh's playoff loss to Denver. Before Monday's news of his one-year suspension, it was natural to believe Bryant would use that performance as a springboard to a breakout season.

"I don't know what you do against this guy," NBC broadcaster Cris Collinsworth raved in early December. "I'm telling you: Physically, he's as talented as anybody playing in football right now. ... He's 6-foot-4, he runs about a 4.3. Seems like every time we do a game, he scores a touchdown or two. ... He is a freakish athlete."

The Steelers are one of the few NFL teams equipped to handle the season-long loss of a top playmaker. They didn't miss a beat last year when DeAngelo Williams proved to be a viable replacement for Bell.

Markus Wheaton finally emerged as a viable No. 3 option last year, averaging roughly 80 yards over the final six games of the regular season. Veteran speedster Darrius Heyward-Bey was recently re-signed, doubtlessly with knowledge of Bryant's predicament.

Even better, physically gifted but unpolished 2015 third-round draft pick Sammie Coates provided a glimpse of his potential with a 37-yard catch-and-run, a 24-yard deep crosser and a long pass-interference penalty while picking up snaps in Brown's absence versus the Broncos. Roethlisberger told CBS announcers that Coates had looked "spectacular" in postseason practices.

For all of that depth, though, the Steelers have averaged 29 points per game with Bryant in the lineup versus 22 with him on the sideline over the past two years. In more stark terms, Pittsburgh has scored at least 30 points in 52.3 percent of games with Bryant and just 27.3 without him.

Roethlisberger still has enough weapons at his disposal to lead a top-five NFL offense and survive in the AFC North. But can he pace the league in passing yards per game for the third consecutive season, challenge NFL single-season records and earn his first MVP award without a wide receiver so uniquely gifted that he's jokingly referred to as "The Alien"?

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