Sometimes, even the losers laugh. What the hang, or some such, Terry Bradshaw was saying 12 minutes after the game, feeling a whole lot the way James Brooks had 12 seconds into the game. Yep, that sure was some dumb ol' Zeke move he'd pulled out there that kept the Steelers from reaching the strangest of goals: a ring for the thumb.

"Lived by the pass; died by it," he said. "I got greedy. My blood was running. I get like that once in a while. All charged up. I know what I'm gonna do . . . When I'm throwing well, like I was for three quarters, I'm like a wild horse. Don't want any bits in my mouth."

That was why the Steelers led the Chargers by 11 points in the fourth quarter today; that also was why the Steelers lost this first-round NFL playoff. Terrific Terry for three quarters; Terrible Terry twice.

Four times the Steelers have won the Super Bowl. Four times Bradshaw has thrown it back at critics who insisted his football IQ and the length of the field were about the same. Joking, the Steelers said they knew where that fifth ring would go--and were charging toward the next playoff step in the final 11 minutes.

Came third and eight at the Pittsburgh 21--and the pitiful play the Steelers and their fans will recall as vividly as many of the wondrous ones.

"The first time I felt I really cost us a victory," Bradshaw put it.

Scrambling, he saw what everyone else in Three Rivers Stadium had: no Charger between him and a first down. On the run, he thought run. Then he saw Lynn Swann break free. Headstrong now, wild, no bit in his mouth, Bradshaw threw. He's completed some passes that seemed impossible during his 13 NFL years; this one really was.

"It's right there in the coaching book," he said, "on Page 10--don't throw across the field . . . on the run . . . in a big game. And I did it. That's what's eatin' my goat right now."

Almost as soon as the ball left Bradshaw's hand, the Chargers got recharged.

"My eyes lit up," Kellen Winslow admitted. "When he threw the ball, I was standing there with my helmet off. I didn't even wait to see him (cornerback Jeff Allen) catch it. I turned around to get my helmet. I knew we had it."

This was a game whose only thread was infrequent idiocy by players who know better. Bradshaw's fluke negated the opening one by Brooks. Early gloom for San Diego; late glee for a team that has all but invented ways to lose big games over the years.

Allowing the kickoff team a touchdown on the first play of the game was beyond belief. Brooks had six points on his mind before he had the football in his hands.

"No doubt it would have been a touchdown," he said. He meant a Chargers' touchdown.

"There was a hole for a truck to go through," he added. "They were telling us all week that the Steelers didn't have great special teams. In the back of my mind, I was thinking that. I hadn't run one back all the way in two years. I figured if I do it now, in the playoffs, on TV, I'll get some respect as one of the best special-teams players."

He certainly did get attention.

Twice.

It wasn't bad enough that Brooks fumbled the ball into the end zone and the Steelers recovered for what soon was a 7-0 lead; he had to go out there and field another one. But maybe that wasn't too bad. As Bradshaw would put it, get right back on that horse.

And get thrown again.

Incredibly, the kickoff hit Brooks on the chest again--and bounced off. This time it was only immense embarrassment instead of disaster, for he recovered the ball at the two. And the Chargers eventually got a field goal out of it. Later, unmolested for at least 10 yards, he fair-caught a punt at the San Diego nine.

Was this James Brooks or Mel Brooks?

No matter. The imaginary goat horns finally landed on Bradshaw's balding scalp. He accepted them with good humor. Outwardly, at least.

"It hurts at first," he said, "but what the heck. Forget it and go home. What else is there to do? I saw run; I saw Swann. Poor judgment. Only me and God knows why I threw it. And even He was tellin' me not to.

"But maybe the next play (had he run for that first down) would have been a fumble. Who knows?"

Now and then, Bradshaw played fan. He has thrown often and well over the years; even his jaw went slack watching Dan Fouts and all those catchers.

"You almost want to go out there and get their autographs," he said. "If we have another war, we can throw them at (the enemy). All those bombs and tanks."

Statistically, Bradshaw's day was Foutsian: 28 completions in 39 tries for 325 yards and two touchdowns.

"Everybody has a hot hand against us," said San Diego's defensive coordinator, Tom Bass, laughing. "We'd love to stop 'em every series, but we're not capable of that."

Bradshaw knows he's not capable of throwing a ball through a human being, but sometimes he tries.

"When it works," he said, "you sit back and laugh about it. When it doesn't, you stand here and answer for it. In the heat of competition, you do a lot of stupid things."

What he plans for next weekend makes sense.

Who will the Chargers be playing? he inquired.

The Dolphins. In Miami, site of that memorable playoff shootout last year.

Bradshaw smiled.

"I'll get me some popcorn," he said, "and get in front of the TV--and watch those flea-flickers."