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Labriola on 'a fine line,' MVP Award, King on zebras

Ready or not, here it comes:

• Each of the Steelers coaches since 1969 has had a foundational belief that came to be accompanied by a catchphrase. Chuck Noll's was: Whatever it takes. Mike Tomlin's is: The standard is the standard. And Bill Cowher's, which was: "It's a fine line," seems especially apropos today.

• And it's apropos today, because in around 48 hours, the Steelers will learn their playoff fate, based on the outcome of three different games: their game against the Bengals at Heinz Field, the Ravens hosting the Browns, and possibly the Titans hosting the Colts.

• To summarize, if the Steelers lose to the Bengals, they're out; if the Browns defeat the Ravens, the Steelers can still win the AFC North by beating or tying the Bengals; and if the Steelers win and the Ravens win, the only path to the postseason would come via a tie between the Titans and the Colts in the Sunday night game. In that case, the Steelers would be a Wild Card.

• But what brings us to the "fine line" is that the 2018 Steelers aren't a decidedly lesser team than the 13-3 version from 2017, and yet these Steelers are hanging by a thread in terms of their playoff hopes.

• That's because it's a fine line.

• In 2017, six of the Steelers' 13 victories were by a one-score margin, and four of those six were won by field goals inside the two-minute warning of the second half. And two of those four victories came on field goals as time expired.

• Breaking down those one-score victories for the 2017 Steelers: at Cleveland, 21-18; at Kansas City, 19-13; at Indianapolis, 20-17, on a last-play field goal; vs. Green Bay, 31-28, on a last-play field goal; at Cincinnati, 23-20, on a field goal with 2:42 remaining in the fourth quarter; and vs. Baltimore, 39-38, on a field goal with 42 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter.

• Contrast that to 2018, when these kinds of games ended up being games the Steelers didn't win. And there were five of these.

• Start with the 21-21 tie vs. the Browns in the opener, when their chance to win was foiled by a missed field goal in overtime; in Denver, it was a 24-17 loss in which the Steelers lost a fumble at the Denver 1-yard line that went through the end zone for a touchback and had a pass intercepted in the same end zone with 67 seconds remaining; a 33-30 loss to the Chargers came on a field goal on the last play of the game; a 24-21 loss in Oakland came on a Raiders touchdown pass with 21 seconds left in the game and then a missed field goal on the final play of the game; and it was a 31-28 loss in New Orleans after a fumble in Saints territory with less than 40 seconds left in the game.

• The 2017 Steelers very easily could've been an 8-8 team instead of a 13-3 team; and the 2018 Steelers could've been the 13-3 team that was the No. 1 seed in the AFC instead of an 8-6-1 outfit that heads into its regular season finale needing a win plus some help just to squeeze into the playoffs.

• It's a fine line, or to put it in a numerical context, it all could hinge on the outcome of maybe as few as a dozen of the approximately 1,700 plays that make up a team's 16-game regular season.

NEWS ITEM: JuJu Smith-Schuster is voted the Steelers MVP Award by his teammates.
• This point has been made here many times already, but I reiterate it now because it's awards season in the NFL. First of all, the outcome of anything that is voted upon is by definition a popularity contest; and secondly, the outcome of every election tells us more about the voters than it tells us about the candidates. And that's every election – mayor, senator, union president, President of the United States, Pro Bowl, All-Pro, NBA All-Star, Super Bowl MVP, and Steelers MVP.

• Why his teammates voted for Smith-Schuster at the end of a season where there would seem to be other, more deserving, candidates is a hot topic throughout Steelers Nation today. But the reality of it is that the only opinions that matter when it comes to this particular issue belong to those individuals in that Steelers locker room who voted in this particular election/popularity contest.

• Ben Roethlisberger is a guy who comes to mind immediately as being the obvious best choice, with him being on the verge of making NFL history by joining the very select group of all-time NFL quarterbacks to pass for 5,000 yards in a season.

• But anyone who has gotten a passing grade in a high school history class should know there have been countless elections/popularity contests throughout history where the individual who was pre-judged to be the obvious best choice didn't win.

• Roethlisberger absolutely is deserving this season, just as he has been absolutely deserving every year since he took over for Tommy Maddox early in his rookie year of 2004. The same case could be made for Tom Brady in New England, Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, and Drew Brees in New Orleans. With those four teams, none of them could absorb the loss of their franchise quarterbacks, all of them would be a shell of what they are with their franchise quarterbacks if they had to play for a considerable time without them.

• The media outrage over this is comical, as if this vote is some referendum on a player's value to a particular edition of the Steelers, and/or to the franchise in general. No additional evidence is needed to discount the referendum theory than this: While it's true that Roethlisberger has been voted Steelers MVP just once, that same distinction also applies to Joe Greene, Franco Harris, Troy Polamalu, and Mel Blount.

• Greene was the most transformational player in the history of the franchise, and Harris put the Steelers over the top once he arrived in 1972 because the NFL at the time was all about running the football on offense and stopping the run on defense. Blount was such a dynamic player that the NFL changed its rules to limit his effectiveness, and Polamalu was one of the most dynamic defensive players of this century.

• And what do linebacker Bryan Hinkle and David Little have in common? Each of them won the Steelers MVP Award once, which is one more time than Jack Ham, who won it never. Joining Ham with that distinction are Lynn Swann and Dermontti Dawson and Mike Webster.

• Clearly, JuJu Smith-Schuster's teammates saw something and appreciated something in the way he went about his business in 2018, and so they bestowed this recognition on him. But that doesn't change the fact Ben Roethlisberger is the Steelers' MIP – most indispensable player. And there isn't an individual in that locker room who doesn't realize that.

NEWS ITEM: Peter King is one of the most respected and decorated media members currently covering the NFL. One of his most visible contributions is "Football Morning in America," a piece that appears on on 40-plus Mondays a year, and the following was part of the Dec. 24 edition:
• "The officiating is a major concern. Some of the calls in Pittsburgh-New Orleans were just ghost calls. The early Joe Haden pass interference, a big call in a one-score game, was a phantom call, as so many are. So I was sitting here in a San Francisco hotel writing early this morning when a prominent NFL club official sent me a text. This source is unemotional, even-tempered and a total, absolute league guy. In part, he wrote:

• '"Something has to give on the officiating in our league. The random nature of things week to week, the volume of penalties that breaks up the game. I hear Joe Buck and Troy [Aikman] on FOX and Cris [Collinsworth] and Al [Michaels] on Sunday night confused. Everyone is at a loss. There is no consistency. The game is choppy. It's obvious that something is broke. Teams, coaches, GMs are at a loss for what will be emphasized week to week. At the same time, officials feel like they have been betrayed by the league and no one has their back. I've been around this league for over 25 years. This is as bad as I have seen it."

• "There is no question, with four good referees being replaced this year (there are 17 refs in all), that the league doesn't have the same quality of officiating overall. The NFL will have to decide after the season, with more refs on the verge of retirement, how to handle the turnover so it doesn't affect the overall quality. As it is, the league seems afraid to give the newbies and more inexperienced guys the big games. And there's a total inequity in some calls from crew to crew. There's an outcry about officiating every year. I don't know if it's worse than ever, but it seems like more and more games hinge on precarious calls."

• If the NFL won't listen to me, maybe it'll listen to Peter King.

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