There's a lot to say about the dramatic, emotional Baltimore Ravens' 38-35 double overtime win over the Denver Broncos in the AFC Playoffs on Saturday.
Did it rank among the best playoff games in NFL history? One cannot say the game lacked drama as both teams punched back and forth into double overtime. But it also was one of the ugliest postseason games ever, and referee Bill Vinovich and his officiating crew decidedly influenced the game in Baltimore's favor.
Mike Pereira, the Rules Analyst at FOX Sports and former Vice President of Officiating in the National Football League, defended the officials in his piece for Fox Sports.
"You could say the officiating crew got a frigid review from my Twitter followers, many indicating that the game was not called very well," Pereira notes. "I disagree."
He begins his apologia by reminding us:
"Baltimore-Denver was a tough game to officiate. There were a lot of points scored (73), a lot of passes thrown (77) and as I mentioned, it was cold."
Apparently, games in cold weather featuring lots of points and passes are more difficult to officiate. Perhaps the NFL should institute rules to encourage more use of the ground game and move postseason games to neutral sites in Florida and Arizona.
Well, okay, the game was cold -- the coldest postseason game in Denver Broncos history. I'm glad I wasn't out there on the field as the sun set behind the Rockies and the temperature dropped into single digits. As the game went into double overtime, it also became the longest playoff game in Denver history.
Nevertheless, in a game that had followers lighting up Twitter with comments on the officiating throughout the game, Mike Pereira choses to zero in on just two plays as a basis for his defense. And I don't think either helps him make his case.The first is Peyton Manning's third quarter fumble (or as it was so ruled) that invoked interpretations of the so-called "tuck rule." Pereira:
The tuck rule states that if a player loses possession after he tucks the ball back into his body, it is a fumble. And that was the key. Manning did get the ball all the way back to his body before it was knocked out. If the ball would have come loose when Manning was tucking it back towards his body, then it would have been an incomplete pass. But since he had tucked it back to his body, it then became a fumble.
But as the replay showed, Manning seemed to lose control of the ball as his throwing hand came down. CBS announcer Dan Dierdorf broke it down as he watched the replay together with the viewers at home: "I think Peyton Manning starts to lose control of this football... Right there, it's coming out of his [hand] and he's not able to ever regain control of the football... he's attempting to tuck it and he loses control of the football."
Attempting is the key word here; he tried to tuck it back to his body but he lost control of it in the process. By rule, that's an incomplete pass, not a fumble. Instead, it was ruled a turnover, and on a shortened field, the Ravens tied the game with a Ray Rice touchdown five plays later. More on this in a bit.
The second play Pereira cherry picks is the disputed completion to Baltimore Ravens receiver Anquan Boldin with 12:30 left in overtime. If the catch had been ruled incomplete, the Ravens would have been forced to punt to Denver from their own 22-yard line in what had become a battle for field position.Pereira:
The officials ruled that Boldin had made the catch. He did bobble the ball, but he regained possession with his right hand on his way to the ground. The ball hit the ground, but in order for the pass to be ruled incomplete, Boldin would have literally had to lose possession of the ball. Boldin's right hand stayed on the ball at all times. The ground was deemed not to have aided Boldin in completing the catch, since he had possession first before he hit the ground. If the ball touches the ground simultaneously with possession being gained, then the ground is deemed to have aided in the completion of the catch and the pass is incomplete. Again, Vinovich made the correct ruling.
Pereira's statement "in order for the pass to be ruled incomplete, Boldin would have literally had to lose possession of the ball" has me stumped, as it appeared in a replay close-up this is just what happened: Boldin hit the ground in the process of completing the catch, and he momentarily trapped the ball against the ground before regaining control of it. (It should be noted: You can lose possession of the ball even though you have your hand on it.) Another bad call, it seems to me, and one which aided the Ravens in an overtime period ultimately decided by field position and won by a field goal.
But let's move on from these two plays; it's at least possible to have different interpretations of the replays. But Pereira makes a blanket statement that the game was officiated well. In doing so, he seems to ignore some of his own in-game statements on Twitter.
The tone for a poorly officiated game was set in the first quarter when Peyton Manning threw to receiver Eric Decker. Ravens cornerback Chykie Brown (who would rightly be flagged for launching himself at a defenseless receiver later in the game) prevented Decker from making the catch by wrapping up Decker's left arm before the ball arrived--a clear example of pass interference. The ball was tipped, and Ravens' Corey Graham made the interception and returned it for a touchdown.
Watching the replay, Dierdorf noted: "Now there was some contact early. There's no question that the Ravens got away with a little something there."
In Pereira's own words on Twitter at the time: "In my opinion he made contact as he was turning around and was not making a legitimate play on the ball when the contact first occurred."
But interference was not called, and so instead of a first down for the Broncos near midfield with the score tied, the Ravens now led 14-7.
As they old adage goes, "As long as you call that both ways..." But in this game, it wasn't. Fast forward to overtime: On a crucial third-down play in the Ravens' half of the field, Baltimore's Joe Flacco threw an incomplete pass to Torrey Smith. In came a flag for interference on Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey, even though, as the replay would show, the contact Bailey made was of a type routinely allowed by NFL officials on pass plays. As Pereira himself tweeted: "That's too tight to call DPI [defensive pass interference]. Not a good call in my opinion. He grabs but doesn't significantly hinder the receiver."
These were the two most controversial pass interference situations of the game. One yielded seven points yielded to Baltimore. The other allowed the Ravens to retain possession and gain field position instead of having to punt to Denver (and scary return man Trindon Holliday) in overtime. Both bad calls, both game changers that significantly benefited Baltimore -- a seven-point swing plus a swing in possession, in a game so close it went to a second overtime period.
Meanwhile, Frank Schwab of "Shutdown Corner" reminds us of the controversial call that immediately preceded the "tuck rule" play:
The Broncos, leading 28-21 and settling into a rhythm on offense, converted a first down on third-and-one, but then guard Chris Kuper was flagged for holding. Schwab notes it was "something rarely called on an inside run and didn't seem to be holding either." Dierdorf, a Hall of Fame offensive lineman, concurred the replay showed no clear infraction on Kuper's part. But the phantom penalty wiped out the first down, and one play later, Manning was ruled to have fumbled; soon afterward the game was tied. It can fairly be said Denver was the victim of bad calls on two consecutive plays, resulting in both loss of possession and a dramatic shift in field position.Schwab claims:
Yet of the controversial plays Schwab cites, only one benefited the Broncos: when cornerback Cary Williams was flagged for holding Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas on a third-down play -- and Dierdorf noted officials would flag such contact more often than not in any game. (The evidence Schwab cites for why the call on Williams was questionable? "The Ravens were animated on the field after that call.") And Schwab himself allows "the final pair of questionable and critical calls both went against the Broncos in overtime.
The best thing that can be said about the officiating crew for Broncos-Ravens, headed by referee Bill Vinovich, was that it didn't seem to play favorites. There were really baffling calls against both sides.
And let's not even get into the fact that Ravens kicker Justin Tucker came onto the field to take practice kicks between overtime periods when he shouldn't have been allowed to by the officials.
To be fair, Pereira's defense of his former zebra brethren is simply par for the course after such games. As quick as people are to criticize referees for controversial calls, after any game that's been marred by bad calls, invariably there are fans and commentators who rush to say that's not really what decided the game. They shrug off the results of bad officiating decisions even for the most game-changing of plays. Both teams benefit from bad calls, they say. Referees don't decide games. Repeat after me: Referees don't decide games.
Such statements are statements of religious faith. They're based only on what people want to believe to avoid confronting uncomfortable realities.
Now, let's be honest: It's undeniable Denver played better games this season. They had many opportunities to put Baltimore away on Saturday. The bitter cold weather seemed to limit future Hall of Fame quarterback Manning to short passes all game long (and no doubt the Ravens secondary had something to do with it, too). Bailey, another future Hall of Famer, was torched a number of times in single-man pass coverage. Second year safety Rahim Moore made a terrible blunder in the final minute of regulation that need not be elaborated upon here, and Manning added his own in the second overtime period.
There also was one mistake from Broncos coach John Fox that has been all but forgotten. Although he would be criticized (perhaps unfairly) for being too conservative at one or three points in the game, he was not conservative enough when he decided to have Matt Prater attempt a long-distance field goal just before half-time with the ball frozen like a stone. By eschewing a punt that would have pinned the Ravens deep in their territory and effectively ended the half, Fox broke a cardinal rule by setting the opposing team up to score and shift momentum just before halftime -- which, after Prater missed his attempt, is just what the Ravens did on a Flacco touchdown pass to Smith. Instead of leading by seven when they received the opening kickoff in the second half, the Broncos found the score tied once again.
But let's also not pretend Baltimore won this game because they made all the plays and Denver didn't. The Broncos converted just as many third downs (7) as did the Ravens and were 3 for 3 in the red zone, all on Manning touchdown passes. And despite a series of game-altering calls that went against them, the Broncos had overcome them to lead by a touchdown heading into the final minute of the game. Meanwhile, the Ravens were not without their own mistakes--including having to burn a precious timeout to avoid a delay of game penalty in the waning moments of regulation, which nearly doomed them -- or, at times, unimaginative play calling. And any team that gives up a 90-yard punt return and a 104-yard kickoff return for touchdowns in the same game must've blown a coverage or two somewhere.
Ultimately, underneath all the clichés and apologies, it is hard to argue the Baltimore Ravens would not have lost the game long before overtime without several game-changing assists from the officiating crew. I'm assuming Vinovich and his crew are highly rated official if they were selected by the league to do this playoff game. His coming back to field duty after missing a number years on medical leave is a nice story. Nevertheless, these officials tilted the playing field for this game, and Pereira's apologies cannot erase or diminish that. Nor should it stop the NFL from re-visiting how they put together officiating crews for postseason contests.
Especially if those game will be played outdoors in winter and might have two quarterbacks who like to pass.