Final thoughts on the Pittsburgh Steelers' season-ending loss in Denver publisher Jim Wexell with his thoughts on the Steelers' 23-16 playoff loss to the Denver Broncos.

From the notebook of a sportswriter who would rather just yell "Haley," throw deep and be done with it:

* But who'll instead work his way through the problems, the missed opportunities, that caused the Pittsburgh Steelers to lose a second-round playoff game they could've won.

* Do you think Peyton Manning -- when he called that audible and threw deep -- was making fun of Todd Haley's propensity to throw deep on fourth-and-1? Or was he making fun of sportswriters who reflexively blame coaches instead of putting actual thought into their work?

* Regardless, it was a touch of light humor from a quarterback/human being I genuinely respect.

* And one I hope beats the New England Patriots, although I see the Broncos' only chance coming from their defensive side of the ball.

* I counted seven missed opportunities on Sunday, any one of which could've allowed the Steelers to advance to Foxboro.

* Wasn't there a horror movie named "Seven"? Well, this horror show started with Markus Wheaton's drop in the end zone.

* Yes, it was another of those controversial fourth-and-1 plays, in which either Haley or Ben Roethlisberger opted against conventional chain-moving tactics, and in which Mike Tomlin opted against attempting a 49-yarder because of 30 m.p.h. gusting crosswinds. But the thing did hit Wheaton in the chest.

* It wasn't a strong day for Wheaton in his attempt to replace Antonio Brown as the leader of the wideouts.

* Wasn't a bad day, either. A pair of muffs in the return game, and the lack of a needed block on a Bronco downing another punt inside the five, short-circuited all of his gains as a receiver, though.

* Missed Opportunity II occurred early in the second quarter following Darrius Heyward-Bey's 58-yard catch-and-run to the Denver 22. A sack appeared to result from rookie Sammie Coates not looking at Roethlisberger when he should have, followed by a drop by Heath Miller, resulted in a 43-yard field goal that kept Denver within a touchdown at 10-6.

* Late in the second quarter, with Denver backed up to its own 5-yard line and the Steelers no doubt looking for a stop in order to add to their lead before halftime, C.J. Anderson ripped off a 34-yard run as nose tackle Steve McLendon was blocked to the ground and inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons was washed out of the picture. I'm not sure I've written both of those details in the same sentence all season, but this one allowed Denver to kick a 51-yard field goal as the half expired and cut the Steelers' lead to 10-9.

* Missed Opportunity IV occurred afer two passes to Martavis Bryant for 64 yards put the Steelers at the Denver 15, and then the 10, but on third down the officials wouldn't call a clear pass interference penalty on Aqib Talib, who was smothering Bryant in the end zone. This after they had called a ticky-tack pass-interference penalty on Will Gay the previous series. The Steelers had to settle for a 28-yard field goal and another four-point lead.

* In every game Phil Simms calls as a broadcast analyst, I seem to work myself into a lather over something he says. But he also inevitably says something I write down. After James Harrison made a tackle for loss in Denver's ensuing three-and-out possession, Simms said, "I think Harrison's getting younger. Meaner, madder, I don't know but boy can he get underneath."

* For all of the positive plays made by Jarvis Jones on Sunday, I found myself wishing for Harrison to be on the field every snap of the second half. Letting him go, or not talking him into staying another year, would be a mistake by the team. But I know they want to get Jones on the full-time fast track so I have my doubts about watching Harrison play another game.

* One of the big criticisms of the Steelers' playcalling Sunday seemed to be their conservative mindset while the offense was backed up near its own goal line in the middle of the third quarter. I had no problem with it. In fact, I was worried -- since Manning couldn't get ANYTHING going -- that it was time for the Denver defense to make a game-turning play. So, I would've made the same conservative play calls that led to a three-and-out, punt to midfield and subsequent Denver field goal that cut the lead to 13-12.

* Was it irony that between those series, after the Steelers had punted, Manning's ping-pong commercial aired during which he sings, "Epic comeback starts right here."

* Not sure how "epic" it was, but on a windy day, and without much left in that old arm of his, a four-point comeback could've been considered close to that.

* OK, on to Missed Opportunity V. We all remember this one. Roethlisberger, Coates and Wheaton matriculated the ball to the Denver 38 late in the third, and Fitzgerald Toussaint pushed it to the 24, where the Steelers had a first down with a one-point lead. But on first down, on a playcall that really bothered me, Roethlisberger came out in an empty set. Marcus Gilbert was beat, grabbed a facemask, allowed a sack and what appeared to be a fumble. Alas, the fumble wasn't allowed, the sack wasn't accepted, but the 15-yard penalty and ensuing 5-yard loss by Jordan Todman forced the Steelers to punt -- into the end zone.

* A 51-yard field-goal attempt there would've either given the Steelers a four-point lead or left the Broncos with the ball at their own 41. I agreed with their decision to punt. After all, Jordan Berry had 32 punts downed inside the 20 this season and had punted only two into the end zone.

* Well, make that three into the end zone. Short of a block, the 19-yard net punt was the worst of all possible results.

* Still, the Steelers survived that, and the other missed opportunities, and another Wheaton muff at their goal line, and had the ball at their own 25 with the lead and 11:33 to play. And one play later they were at the 47, thanks to Jesse James. And then they were at the Denver 40, thanks to Wheaton. And then the 40, and then the 31 -- whoops. Toussaint fumbled. It was the only turnover of the day but it ruined not only a probable field goal but a potential touchdown, considering the way Roethlisberger was moving them at the time. But Denver now had the ball.

* And finally, Missed Opportunity VII saw Gay drop an interception right in his bread basket. Upon further review, Emmanuel Sanders, the guy Pittsburgh fans weren't sorry to see leave two years ago, got his hand on the ball to break up the interception. It was an exceptional play by Sanders. It took some want-to, and not all receivers have A.) the awareness to do so or B.) the willingness on a mis-thrown ball. Kudos to the guy for saving his team.

* The Broncos scored a touchdown and the Steelers got the ball back and everyone, it seems, had one last chance to criticize Tomlin for his alleged clock-mismanagement when the Steelers called a timeout with the ball and 2:19 remaining. As if time was the problem.

* But seeing through on-field issues, such as making sure the offense is right, even as Bryant, the only real threat on the field, was walking toward the sideline trying to shake out cobwebs, isn't as important to some people as their math equations.

* And again, this wasn't about the team running out of time. It merely was about sportswriters trying to sound smart on Twitter.

* After the game, former Steelers coach/current CBS studio analyst Bill Cowher was complimentary of Steelers GM Kevin Colbert for stocking the offensive line, receiver and backfield with much-needed depth to put his team in position to blow seven opportunities at an AFC Conference Championship Game.

* Cowher was right on the money.

* I remember my days as a young sportswriter who was determined to prove to his cynical media colleagues that he was a guy who would blast the biggest and baddest coach in the business, and even do so in the pages of the team's own weekly newspaper. It's something in the training of becoming a journalist that made me want to prove myself in this way. And, frankly, it's easy to blast a head coach -- a quarterback, too -- because you don't need to be close to them. You don't need their respect. Almost the only way for anyone to get quotes from either is in a mass setting anyway. And neither are about to single you out for the negative comments you've been making. So it's easy, and pretty much the work of a phony, to blast from afar, because afar is really the only place you need to be with an NFL head coach anymore.

* My relationship with Cowher deteriorated in the end. Not that I cared because he was leaving and I didn't need him and I was proving to the rest of my field that I would write the truth, however contrived it was.

* Anyway, I regretted it because in retrospect I've come to greatly respect Cowher's tenure as a coach.

* I won't make the same mistake with Mike Tomlin. I see it happening around me. Reporters are finding that being critical of him is easy, even comfortable and expected. The cynics in the media who can be nasty from afar are encouraging the young columnists and beat writers to do it, and they're finding it's easy to do. But you've read my warning. It's not so much about your future relationship, which can -- but most likely won't -- result in a payday down the road. It's more about looking back at your body of work. Do you really want to go on a critical run -- that likely won't end -- with a guy who's actually a very good coach and will end up with an impeccable resume? Not me. Not this time.

* There's a lot more to coaching a football team than someone's idea that math equations equal clock management, or that a decision to punt into the end zone instead of kicking a field goal is actually bad coaching.

* That's enough on Journalism Life Lessons. I enjoy watching this coach and this general manger rebuild with what seems like the 25th pick of the draft every year. They're good at it. I hope the fans can appreciate the big picture instead of becoming wrapped up with a microscope a fine-tooth comb.


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