Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
Like the previous three seasons, the Steelers were involved in many close games in 2012. However, unlike 2010-2011, Pittsburgh was shut out of the postseason because it was on the wrong end of that "fine line."
Last week, Pittsburgh Post Gazette sports columnist Ron Cook wrote a nice piece, detailing the many close games the Steelers had in the 2012 regular season and how the difference in making the playoffs and not making the playoffs boiled down to a few plays.
Fans are well-aware of Pittsburgh's failures in key moments during the 2012 season; a season in which the team played in 11 one-score games--including a remarkable eight where the margin was three points or less (Pittsburgh was 3-5 in those games).
The 2012 season really did come down to a few plays--maybe, most famously, Antonio Brown's fumble on a punt return against Dallas just when the Steelers appeared to be in total control.
That fumble by Brown epitomized Pittsburgh's entire season, and it reminded me of a game against the Chiefs three seasons ago--the last time the team missed the playoffs.
The Steelers had fallen behind early thanks to a Jamaal Charles kickoff return to start the game--the fourth kickoff return for a score in five games by opposing teams--but led 17-7 at the half and were driving for perhaps the game-sealing touchdown early in the third quarter.
Unfortunately, much like the 2012 season, 2009 was just one of those years where Pittsburgh continuously let other teams off the hook, and Heath Miller, of all people, couldn't handle an easy pass over the middle and instead deflected it into the arms of Chiefs' linebacker Andy Studebaker, who returned it into Steelers territory and set up a touchdown that pulled Kansas City within three points. So, instead of the game effectively being on ice, the 2-7 Chiefs hung around and eventually won in overtime.
There were other breakdowns in that game--including another INT by Studebaker in the fourth quarter that set up the game-tying field goal--but every time I think of that 2009 season, I think of that pass to Miller.
Like we've discussed before, there really is a "fine line" in the NFL. I did some research of the Steelers last four seasons thanks to Pro Football Reference, and I discovered that 43 of their last 68 games (including postseason match-ups) have been of the one-score variety.
By my math, that's 63 percent. I haven't done the research on one-score games for the NFL as a whole, but I can tell you the New England Patriots have played 69 games dating back to Week 1 of 2009 and have been involved in 31 one-score affairs.
Both teams have been perennial Super Bowl contenders, but the Patriots have made the playoffs four straight years while Pittsburgh has been shut-out of the postseason twice.
Perhaps it all comes down to a team taking on the personality of its head coach.
How many times have we cussed out New England for running up the score in recent years but exclaimed "Style points don't matter!" after sweating out yet another ugly, close Steelers victory?
The opposition has a say in what happens in a football game, but the common denominator in every game involving Pittsburgh is, well, Pittsburgh.
The 2010 season was a magical campaign for the Steelers and ultimately culminated in an appearance in Super Bowl XLV. However, the season could have been a lot less magical had a couple of plays gone the other way.
Remember the controversial ending to the Dolphins game in Week 7, where Ben Roethlisberger fumbled into the end zone while trying to score the go-ahead touchdown? The referee couldn't determine on video replay who recovered the football, so Pittsburgh was awarded possession and won the game, 23-22, with a Jeff Reed field goal.
If the official had a different interpretation of the play, Miami wins that football game.
Remember the overtime win in Buffalo a few weeks later? Bills' wide receiver Stevie Johnson dropped what would have been the game-winning touchdown early in the extra period. Pittsburgh took advantage of the huge break and won it on a Shaun Suisham field goal.
Had the Steelers lost either of those games, they don't win the AFC North title, they don't get a bye, and who knows what happens in the playoffs.
When a team has a propensity of playing in a lot of close games like Pittsburgh has in recent years, a season really does come down to a few plays, and if those plays aren't made, there is no postseason.
Like Dick Lebeau is fond of saying, "Sometimes, you get the bear. Sometimes, the bear gets you."