Long, Strange Trip Finally Ends

Jim Wexell's final post-game notes column of 2013:

From the notebook of a sportswriter who was glad he was alone when the Chargers finally outlasted the Chiefs to end the Steelers' season:

* If you need an explanation of how the matrix involving those three teams worked itself out on Sunday, you probably shouldn't be reading this column.

* Tunch Ilkin was with me early in the afternoon -- as were all the media covering the Steelers this season -- but he was "with me" in the belief that the Steelers would beat the Browns, the Jets could beat the Dolphins, and the Bengals should beat the Ravens.

* That was the woulda-coulda-shoulda trifecta. "But Chase Daniel is quarterbacking against the Chargers," Tunch said with skepticism.

* Hey, I told him, Chase Daniel is already a folk hero in Missouri, and he's been in the league long enough that he won't just go out there and curl up in the fetal position as the K.C. QB. I told Tunch that I believed the Chaser could do it.

* "Didn't he cost me a bowl bet a few years ago?" someone else asked, to which I replied, "You're getting him confused with Blaine Gabbert."

* And then we went out and watched the Steelers suffocate the Browns in one of those games in which you must scratch the surface with a rusty nail to criticize.

* Yes, the Steelers have become that team again down the stretch, a team whose major malfunctions are not quite so obvious.

* And I know all about the defense. But one time I did a double take after thinking I saw Aaron Smith jack a Cleveland lineman back with his arms to force an off-tackle play out wide, and then rip those arms down -- with the lineman flailing to the ground -- to pursue the back out of bounds.

* It wasn't just the arms that fooled me, but Cameron Heyward's big body, his presence, made me double-check whether the number was 91 instead of 97.

* It was one of those games in which you don't even write about Ben Roethlisberger, who, in spite of a couple of picks, was attuned to managing the offense with precision.

* He's become quite the game manager, and that's meant as more of a compliment than it used to mean to Roethlisberger, whom Ken Whisenhunt once had on puppet strings because of Ben's youth.

* No, Roethlisberger is now the ultimate game manager because he calls his own plays at the line, and it's coming off seamlessly.

* When the fans can snooze through that, you know he's doing a great job.

* So even though there are some holes to be patched as the Steelers transition out of their last era, they've clearly found a dominating defensive lineman and an old-school QB who can run the game by himself. They've also found a running back, depth for their offensive line, and a pass-rusher in Jason Worilds this season.

* On that note, I believe the Steelers will find a way to keep Worilds, even if they need the franchise tag to do it. But those stories are for another day.

* So while those covering the Steelers in the press box were complaining that the story wasn't in the three games being won by the Steelers at the time, that the story could -- and would -- linger into the night, those covering the Browns were scrambling on cell phones to get a better handle on the firing of the coach that was being reported on the Internet by those not even in the stadium.

* "Want to switch teams?" one busy Browns reporter asked of one complaining Steelers reporter.

* As the Steelers' lead became insurmountable amidst the steadily falling rain, the crowd, of course, grew smaller. But it grew more feisty as the out-of-town scores rolled in. The woulda-coulda-shoulda trifecta hit -- just like the previous week's superfecta -- and the party moved inside.

* The defense was the story Sunday, not only because it played well but because that's the unit upon which the off-season patchwork will take place. And Brett Keisel and Ryan Clark, because of their age and contract status, might be saying goodbye.

* They both said they could still play, and would if the Steelers deem them necessary. And I see possibilities in that regard.

* I also had to check in on Troy Polamalu, who said in the middle of the season that he wants to return, but whose serious-mindedness could lead to a change of thinking at any time.

* Troy still has a year left on his contract, says he wants to fulfill it, and I'm not so sure the Steelers will ask him to take a pay cut. He could just call their bluff the way James Harrison did and finish his career in Southern California.

* Harrison wasn't a national treasure coming off another Pro Bowl, so I have my doubts that the Steelers will want to foul up the farewell to this icon.

* When Polamalu was asked how he played this year, he said, "Well, we're eight and eight" to once again live up to everything I've taught my child about championship character and humility.

* Troy was asked in a follow-up to explain the difference in his team in the second half of the season. "We're winning," he said without any hint of sarcasm.

* All three wily vets -- Keisel, Clark and Polamalu -- were asked if they were going to watch the Chiefs try to beat the Chargers. "As soon as you guys quit talking," said Keisel. "No, my son's in the championship game of his Christmas basketball tournament," said Clark. "Ah, no," said Polamalu. All three answers described those three men perfectly.

* In the press box after interviews, many of the writers were in a quandary. Either they had to write new stories based on the result of the 4:25 p.m. game, or they had to at least tweak the stories they had already written. It was a waiting game to be sure.

* "Hey, Wexell, you were right about Chase Daniel. He really can do this," one writer shouted down to me as I was finishing up my game story.

* I replied that Chase could become the king of both Missouri and Pennsylvania if he keeps his lead on the Chargers, and surely no one has ever done that.

* "Stan Musial did," came the unexpected, and correct, reply.

* As the Chiefs began their final fourth-quarter drive of a tie game, I bid adieu to what was becoming a party in the press box. I received some strange looks, as in "How could you miss this?" but I wanted to manage my time properly and figured the Chiefs' drive and possible overtime would coincide with my 45-minute drive home.

* So I was alone in my car when I heard on the radio that the Chiefs had missed a 41-yard field goal which would've sent the Steelers to the playoffs.

* There was a thud, to be sure, but there wasn't that sickening feeling of Sid Bream sliding under a tag or Neil O'Donnell throwing short on fourth down. It was more "I went all the way through 400 must-win scenarios the last two weeks for this?"

* The radio station provided a moment of comic relief when someone in the background began shouting in lament of the missed kick, and the talk-show host scolded him to "stop being a baby."

* No, you're a baby.

* No, YOU'RE A BIG FAT BABY!!

* But the feeling moved from comedy to tragedy as referee Bill Leavy called forward progress to negate a fumble return for a touchdown in overtime by the Chiefs.

* When I got home and watched the replay, it was obvious the pile was still moving forward and that the touchdown should've stood. And after the Chargers won, I learned that Leavy had botched another call when the Chargers illegally lined up seven men to one side of the center on the earlier K.C. field goal miss. I also learned that the Steelers can expect another apology from the league.

* Really -- and I swear I say this once a year -- the league should apologize for employing Leavy. This is the guy who officiated Super Bowl 40 and later cried to a reporter that he "kicked" calls that should've gone against the Steelers. This played into the populist contention that the Steelers received an inordinate amount of breaks in that game, but I'm still waiting for someone to correctly point one -- just one -- out to me.

* Leavy didn't help his credibility in future games by moaning about that Super Bowl a few years later, and, yep, he's still killing the Steelers today.

* These Steelers had a chance in these playoffs. You saw what a mediocre Ravens team did last year with the right momentum, health, leadership and quarterback. The Steelers have the same, and would've been a tough out in these playoffs.

* This was far from the injury-ravaged team that lost to Tim Tebow's Broncos a few years back. This was a hot team with a hot quarterback and they would've had to play in Cincinnati, where the Bengals and their fans have watched this horror show before.

* I have seen this movie before, too. After Cincy comes Peyton Manning and the hope that someone else beats Tom Brady. But the script got thrown in the can by a bad kicker and a worse official. What a long, strange trip this season has been.


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