If he had taken a step to the right – maybe two steps. It’s impossible to say for sure how the rest of the game might have played out, but it is certainly conceivable that all the story lines of Super Bowl LIII could have been re-written by one first-quarter play.
The NFC Championship battle between the New Orleans Saints and the Los Angeles Rams, of course, ended in controversy – and controversy such that the wrong team is clearly going to the Super Bowl. But, when the Saints lined up on the Ram 15-yard line with still 7:55 left in the first quarter, the game seemed to hang in the balance (and, in fact, maybe it did).
The Saints began the game with an 11-play 56-yard drive that ate the first 4:56 of the game. Disappointingly, for them, that drive only ended in a field goal. Not to worry, though. On LA’s third play of the afternoon, Demario Davis came up with an interception, and the Saints were sitting on the Ram 16-yard line with an early chance to pounce.
A first down run gained only a yard, so that brought us to this pivotal second down play.
Michael Thomas aligned wide to the right, and Tre’Quan Smith was in the slot to that side. Both went vertically up the field. At about the five-yard line, Smith found the Ram defender waiting for him. With the defender assuming inside leverage, all Smith would have had to do is move to his right. Even just a little bit.
He had – as a matter of fact – the whole right sideline as Ram defender Aqib Talib had followed Thomas deep into the end zone. But even failing that, a step or two to the right would have earned him enough separation to resume his vertical.
Instead, Smith turned left – right into the defender. Quarterback Drew Brees threw the ball in that direction anyway, thinking perhaps to draw a penalty. He did not. The officials ruled (correctly, let the record show) that Smith had initiated the contact.
The Ram defender on that play – by the way – was a young cornerback named Nickell Robey-Coleman. It would not be the last time his name would be mentioned in this game.
After the third-down screen pass came up short, the Saints kicked the field goal. The lead crept up to 6-0, but there was a feeling even then that this might come back to haunt them. A huge opportunity was missed. Even after they scored on their next possession – bringing the lead to 13-0 – the feeling persisted. A 17-0 score (or even a 21-0 score if Dan Arnold had managed to hold onto a potential touchdown pass on that first drive) is a different game entirely than the 13-0 deficit the Rams faced.
Not Dead Yet
Even at that, though, an early 13-point lead should have been enough, right? The Saints were, after all, the top seed in the Conference, bearing a 14-3 record and playing at home against a talented but young team unused to this kind of pressure or deficit.
In the aftermath of the contest – an eventual 26-23 Ram overtime victory (gamebook) (summary), some may have questions about the worthiness of the young team from LA. But coming back twice from deficits of at least ten points on the road in the playoffs in the ear-splitting din of the Superdome on a day when the Saints’ defense had mostly silenced the LA running game is no mean feat.
The Rams fought their way back into contention on the strong arm – and stronger will – of baby-faced quarterback Jared Goff, a suddenly effective defense, and a big play from the special teams.
Johnny Hekker is one of the NFL’s most decorated punters. In general, punters aren’t the most sought-after players on the team. You punt when your team has failed to convert on third down, so there is always an aura of failure attending your efforts. Unlike place-kickers, there are no last second, game-winning punts that will put your name in the headlines of tomorrow’s newspapers.
That being said, the punting aspect of the game is very important, and through his first seven seasons, Hekker has been one of the best, sporting a career 47.0 yard average, to go along with four first-team All-Pro selections.
And, oh yes, he sometimes throws the ball instead of punting.
So now it’s the first play of the second quarter. You are the Rams, and you are trailing 13-0. You do not yet have a first down in the game. You face a third-and-five from your own 30 (remember you are deep in your own territory). You cannot have another three-and-out.
But that’s exactly what happens. The third-down screen pass comes up short, and the punting unit takes the field, ready to return the football – and the momentum – to the home team. At this moment, things are feeling a little bleak.
Johnny took the snap. Took one step like he was going to punt. Then raised the ball in his right arm and tossed a perfect pass to Sam Shields in the right flat. Sam avoided the first tackler, advancing the ball to the 42-yard line for a first down.
Shields, of course, had been a star in Green Bay in the early years of this decade. He was an important part of the Packer team that won Super Bowl XLV (45). Six years ago – in a Divisional Round game – Sam intercepted a Colin Kaepernick pass and returned it 52 yards for a touchdown.
His career seemed to be over after he played one game in 2016 and spent the rest of the year on injured reserve. He was cut at the end of that year, and missed the entire 2017 season. He reappeared with the Rams this season – healthier than he had been in a while – to flesh out some thinness in the Ram secondary – and to play on special teams. He had even made two starts earlier in the season. He had also caught a pass previously this season from punt formation – against Green Bay, as it turned out.
This was his biggest moment on a big stage in several years.
Considering where they were on the field and what the stakes were should the play backfire, the gamble was huge.
To this point, the game seemed to reverse-parallel the game the Saints had played the week before against Philadelphia. In that contest, the Eagles came out with the early momentum, and it was the Saints finding themselves down 14-0 before they had even managed a first down. They also turned the tide with a fake punt early in the second quarter – also from their own 30.
Here, though, the parallels ceased. From that point on in the Eagle game, the Saints absolutely dominated. In this one, the momentum switches were far from over. The Saints went on to score a touchdown after their fake punt. The Rams managed only a field goal. But even that changed the feeling of the entire game.
By now, the Jared Goff story has been told and re-told. The first overall pick in the 2016 draft, the Ram quarterback struggled through his rookie season. Under a new coach in 2017, Goff has turned the corner and has now lead the Rams into the playoffs in consecutive seasons, posting 100+ passer rating in both of the last two seasons.
His accomplishments have generated no small stir around the league. While I have been impressed as well, I always want to see a quarterback under the pressure of the playoffs. That, I maintain, is when you can really tell what is in him.
Through his first two playoff games, Jared has been solid, but unspectacular. In last year’s playoff loss to the Vikings, Goff threw a lot (45 passes) for not a lot of gain (259 yards on 24 completions). He did throw a touchdown and did not throw an interception. He played pretty well in the Divisional Round victory over Dallas this year as well. But the passing attack that day – a modest 186 yards on 15 of 28 passing – was carried by the Rams’ overwhelming running attack (273 yards and 3 touchdowns on 48 carries). So far – in all honesty – nothing to really show that Jared was the next great quarterback.
The final numbers in this contest were also modest. Goff finished 25 of 40 for 297 yards with 1 touchdown and 1 interception. Those numbers, however, don’t accurately reflect the achievement. Inside those numbers was the performance the Rams had been hoping for.
The Saints in Evolution
As the season progressed, the New Orleans pass defense evolved from being one of football’s shakiest to one of the best. I detailed some of that progress after the Eagle game as we looked at how they pulled the plug on Nick Foles’ playoff magic. With their second-ranked run defense bottling up the Rams third ranked run offense (and LA would follow up that big game against Dallas with just 77 rushing yards), the Saints showed Goff a little bit of everything in pass defense.
Jared saw an almost even mix of man coverages (21 times) vs. zones (20). He saw frequent blitzes – 16 in his 41 dropbacks (39.0%). These were effective, too. As with Philadelphia the week before, Jared almost always dealt with enough pressure to keep him uncomfortable in the pocket. On 58.5% of his pass attempts (24 of his 41), he had some kind of traffic in his pocket. This included 1 sack and 7 other times that he was hit as he threw.
In those attempts, he completed just 13 of 23 (56.52%) for 184 yards (8.00 per attempt and 14.15 per completion). His interception also came on one of those attempts, for a passer rating of 64.40 when under pressure. While he was never sacked during any of the 16 blitzes he saw, he was held to just 8 of 16 (50%) for just 105 yards (6.56 per attempt) – a 71.09 rating.
Pass Rush is Always the Key
Pressure is always a factor in the passing game. As they say, even the best quarterbacks can’t beat you when they are on their backs. Brees, by comparison, was blitzed only 7 times by the Rams, but completed only 3 of those 7 passes for 20 yards (albeit one of those completions went for a touchdown). When they could get what I call “uncomfortable” pressure on Drew, his rating fell to 59.23 (9 of 14 for 112 yards and his interception). The difference was that Brees felt that heat on only 16 of his 42 dropbacks.
The Rams, of course, are always a challenge do defend, both because of scheme and personnel. With two primary targets – Robert Woods (86 catches, 1219 yards and 6 touchdowns) and Brandin Cooks (80 catches, 1204 yards and 5 touchdowns), defensive coordinator Dennis Allen understood he couldn’t rely on man coverage as much as he had against Philadelphia. So he mixed things constantly throughout, challenging the young quarterback’s recognition and ability to respond to pressure.
That being said, when he did go to man coverage, he would need a big effort from slot-corner P.J. Williams.
Slot corner is – and has been for several years, now – a specialty skill. Increasingly, teams are living and dying on the skills of a man who is commonly regarded as the third corner. If you are a team like the Saints that relies on a particular slot corner, then that will always mean that the opposing team – in this case, the Rams – will get to dictate that matchup. In short, whoever lines up in the slot gets covered by Williams.
Throughout the long afternoon of football, Los Angeles ran both of their lead receivers several times at Williams in the slot. For the most part – and with a big assist from the consistent pressure up front – Williams held up.
He was beaten by Cooks once for a 36 yard pass up the sideline, and gave up two completions to Woods (7 and 16 yards). Of the 21 times the Saints were in man coverage, they blitzed on 14 of them.
These blitzes were most likely to come against the Rams’ two-minute offense and in overtime. In the last two minutes of the first half, the Rams saw blitzes on 4 of the 6 passes they threw. They scored the touchdown, anyway. In the drive that resulted in the game-tying field goal, Allen blitzed on 5 of the 8 passes without getting the big play hoped for. Goff was also blitzed on all 3 of his overtime pass attempts. He got them in field goal range, anyway.
Even though he faced blitz pressure on 8 of his last 11 passes, and 12 of the 17 he threw in two-minute or overtime scenarios, Goff still led the team to scores in those three possessions.
On those occasions when pressure came without the help of a blitz, it almost always came in the form of Cameron Jordan. With their second best defensive lineman (Sheldon Rankins) unavailable, everything fell to Jordan at his left defensive end position, locked for most of the afternoon in a battle with Ram right tackle Rob Havenstein. Jordan did have his moments. He collected New Orleans’ only quarterback sack of the afternoon, and disrupted – or nearly disrupted – several other attempts (including the last completion of the game to Tyler Higbee). But Havenstein’s consistent effort against Jordan – most of the time without help – was a huge piece of the Rams’ victory.
In the end, though, Jared Goff dealt with all of this. He dealt with the blitzes, the pressure from Jordan, the noise, the deficit, the mixing of coverages that challenged him to get the ball to his best receivers. And he steadily got better as the game progressed.
Trailing by three at the half (13-10), the Rams got the ball to start the second half. Any expectations held by Ram faithful were quickly dispelled with another three-and-out, the last of those an incompletion by Goff as David Onyemata (playing for the injured Rankins) applied pressure up the middle. The Rams punted, and the next time they saw the ball, they trailed 20-10 with 8:34 left in the third.
From that point until the winning kick sailed through the uprights, Goff took over. He led them on scoring drives on four of their last five possessions. Jared ended the game completing 13 of his last 18 passes (72.22%) for 183 yards. In those pressure packed drives, he averaged 10.17 yards per attempted pass, and 14.08 yards per completed pass. Nine of those 13 completions went for first downs, including 3 that gained at least 25 yards and the one touchdown pass to Higbee (that came off of play-action, by the way). His passer rating coming down the stretch was 123.15.
Oh That Play-Action
Not enough has been said about the Rams’ use of play-action. Whether it’s Todd Gurley or C.J. Anderson in the backfield, its impact on the defense is highly disruptive. The touchdown to Higbee was set up by a 25-yard catch and run by Cooks up the left sideline. The play was wide open because the defender that had responsibility for that zone (Demario Davis) had been completely sucked into the line by the play fake. With 8:08 in the game and the Rams still down by three, another play-fake caused utter chaos in the Saint secondary – with half of them ending up playing man and half zone. The confusion left linebacker Davis chasing Josh Reynolds from behind on a 33-yard play that led to the tying field goal.
If there is anything to say about the Rams’ use of play action, it may be that they don’t do enough of it. While I’m sure there is a point of diminishing returns, LA went to play-action on just 13 of their 41 pass plays (Goff going 9 for 12 for 108 yards, 1 TD and 1 sack). Goff’s passer rating coming off play action was a substantial 129.86.
That Last Drive
With all of this, perhaps Goff’s best moments came in the abbreviated overtime possession. After John Johnson gave LA possession on their own 46 with an interception, Goff and the offense knew they needed a few more yards. After play-action on the first play of the drive, Goff booted to his left and looked up to find Alex Okafor almost on top of him. But there would be no loss here. In a blink of an eye, Goff had the ball out of his hands in into the arms of Higbee for the 12-yard gain that put the Rams in the shadow of field goal range.
After a first down run pushed the Rams back to the 45, they faced second-and-thirteen, needing, perhaps, a few more yards for a more manageable long field goal.
With the season on the line, Cameron Jordan tore through the Rams’ line. Eight yards behind the line of scrimmage, Jordan gripped Goff’s left shoulder with his meaty left hand. The Rams were that close to being pushed out of field goal range. On his way to the ground with what would have been a devastating sack, Goff floated a prayer to Higbee (again) stationed in the left flat for just such circumstances. His catch and subsequent 6-yard gain was the final piece needed.
Two plays later, Ram kicker Greg Zuerlein ended the Saints’ season with a booming 57-yard field goal (that probably would have been good from 67).
That final heave to Higbee may have constituted equal parts skill and luck. And while it is true that the Rams shouldn’t be headed to the Super Bowl – Goff’s heroics notwithstanding – the one thing this game did establish is that the stage is not too big for the young Ram quarterback. Throughout the emotional roller-coaster ride that was this year’s NFC Championship game, Goff never unraveled. He never dropped his focus.
Not all of his reads were flawless, and not all of his throws were great. But for a very young man playing in the biggest game of his life (at least until Sunday) Jared Goff was everything the Rams could have asked for.
Not To Forget
The other huge aspect of this upset was the LA defense. For all of the hoopla that surrounds the high-octane offense and the swirling controversy that surrounds the end of the game, the biggest story throughout really was the Ram defense. And, frankly, for the second week in a row.
The Ram defense has been picked on all year – considered an albatross around the team’s neck. In their regular season matchup with these Saints, they surrendered 45 points, 487 yards and 31 first downs. They limped to the season’s end ranked twentieth in scoring defense – having allowed 384 points – and twenty-third against the run – allowing 122.3 rushing yards per game. During the season, the Rams allowed an astonishing 5.1 yards per rushing attempt – the worst figure in the league.
This was supposed to be the mismatch. The Saints – number eight in total offense, number three in scoring (they scored 504 points this year) and, especially, number six in rushing offense (126.6 yards per game) were supposed to take control of this game at the line of scrimmage and walk away with it. After the Rams opened up their 13-0 lead in the first quarter, it looked like a mortal lock.
No one would have believed at this point that the Saints would manage just one more touchdown and one more field goal through the rest of the game. But this just in. All of a sudden – and out of nowhere – the Ram defense has suddenly become good. Very good. Especially against the run.
Their playoff run has taken them through two of the top rushing offenses in football. Before they faced the Saints, they faced the Dallas Cowboys – the tenth ranked rushing offense (122.7 yards per game) and home of the NFL’s leading rusher in Ezekiel Elliott. The Cowboy ground game never got out of neutral. When the game ended, Dallas had all of 50 rushing yards (47 by Elliott) on 22 carries (20 by Elliott) – a sobering 2.3-yard average.
The Rams were just as good last Sunday against Mark Ingram (9 carries for 31 yards) and Alvin Kamara (8 carries for 15 yards). Ingram had one 16-yard burst in the third quarter. Subtract that run, and his totals were identical with Kamara’s. For the game New Orleans ended with 48 yards on 21 attempts – again, 2.3 per carry.
So, in two playoff games, two top running offenses have combined for 98 rushing yards against this re-born Ram defense. By comparison, in their last two games of the season, bottom-dwelling Arizona and San Francisco ran for 104 and 127 yards respectively. Over their last ten regular season games, the only team that didn’t run for at least 100 yards against this LA defense was Kansas City – and that was only because they didn’t want to. They were too busy throwing for 448 yards in that interesting 54-51 game.
This sudden prowess against the run has certainly come out of nowhere. But the reason for it is fairly clear to anyone who watched the Rams during the season and in the playoffs. If there is one player who is the difference here, that player would be Ndamukong Suh.
Ndamukong Suh was a star on the defensive line of the Detroit Lions in the early years of this decade. A passionate player with a penchant to let his passions run away with him, Suh has worn out his welcome with two teams. When the Rams brought him in on a one-year contract, they envisioned the unblockable combination that he would form in the middle of their defense with Aaron Donald, one of the elite defensive players of his generation.
Certainly, for most of the season, that dominant combination hasn’t been there – not consistently, anyway. Suh has not played poorly – that would be unfair. But for most of the season the Rams truly haven’t seemed to care about opposing running games.
That has changed. The Rams most definitely care. And as for Suh, that passion is back. He was a one-man wrecking ball in the middle of the line, and a principle reason that neither Dallas nor New Orleans managed a pulse in their running games. The rest of the defense has fed of his energy as well.
A re-invigorated Suh speaks well for the Rams in their upcoming battle with New England. But there are also a couple of warning notes that need to be sounded.
First, historically Suh’s on-field passion has been a two-edged sword. Yet to be determined will be how he will respond in that biggest of all stages.
Second, he and Donald are on the field a lot. In this age of shuffling in defensive linemen to keep them fresh, Donald and Suh are decidedly old school. Of the 67 defensive plays the Saints offense ran last Sunday, Suh played 61 and Donald played 66. (The only time he was off the field, by the way, was the ninth play of New Orleans’ opening drive – so Aaron was on the field for all of their last 55 plays).
This does take its toll. By the end of the game you could see the weariness – especially in Donald who still gets double-teamed on every play – even if Suh is next to him.
I point this out because this is what happened to the Falcons when they played New England in the Super Bowl two years ago. They spent the first two quarters chasing Tom Brady all over the pocket. By the fourth quarter, they were all gassed. Will Donald and Suh have the stamina to run with the Patriots for four (or more) quarters?
Still the Wrong Team
Yes, it was an impressive game by the Rams in so many facets. In many ways, probably their best game of the year. Doesn’t change the fact that they should be watching the Super Bowl on TV this year. To this point we’ve looked at everything that shaped this fascinating game, except the play that will eternally define it.
The game is tied at 20. There is 1:49 left in regulation. The Saints face third-and-10 at the Ram 13 yard line. A young receiver named Tommylee Lewis circles out of the backfield and heads up the right sideline. Brees floats the ball at about the time Lewis regains the line of scrimmage. It is at about this point that Robey-Coleman realizes that this is his man, and that he will probably not get there in time. Panicking, and with the season on the line, Robey-Coleman puts his head down and races for Lewis.
He will not look back for the ball. At this point, he doesn’t believe that he will arrive before it. But Brees – throwing a tad early before the pressure can get close – puts quite a lot of air underneath. At just about the five yard line – yes the same five yard line that he had made contact with Smith in the first quarter – Robey-Coleman blasted through Lewis like a bowling ball picking up a ten-pin spare.
The good news was that he had prevented a potential touchdown. The bad news was that he had just committed one of the most flagrant pass interference penalties in recent memory. Far from his assessment of the situation at the beginning, Robey-Coleman not only beat the ball there, but he beat it by several yards, clearly tackling the receiver long before he would have a chance to make the catch.
Shockingly, no flag was thrown. The All-Star officiating crew had missed it. The play took four seconds – officially. Its repercussions will ripple for a long while.
Thoughts in the Aftermath
I’d like to address this in a couple of ways. While not at all denying that the missed call costs the Saints a Super Bowl trip, I don’t think this mistake should gloss over the self-inflicted injuries that New Orleans did to themselves to put themselves in this situation.
I mentioned earlier the missed opportunities in the Red Zone. If one of those trips results in a touchdown perhaps the game is different. There was also that almost opportunity to knock them out of field goal range in overtime.
Even more to the point was the handling of these last two minutes. With marginally better decision making and execution, the Saints would be preparing for the Patriots right now, anyway.
Just before the two-minute warning, Drew Brees heaved the ball up the right sideline for Ted Ginn. This is a connection the Saints had been trying to make all day. This is the only time they connect, as Ginn leaps and comes down with a 43-yard reception. Of four deep passes thrown by Brees today, this was the only one completed. The connection puts the ball 13 yards away from the touchdown that would ice the game, with just 1:58 left to play.
Incredibly, the Saints will never gain another positive yard on offense. In fact, their last seven offensive plays of the 2018 season will lose a total of 7 yards (including the one-yard kneel down that would end regulation).
At this point, they could have chosen to call three running plays, drain the Rams of their timeouts, and kick the field goal. That would give the ball back to LA with about a minute left and needing just a field goal to tie. In the Rams’ ensuing drive, the had only managed about to midfield at the one-minute mark, so there is some evidence to support the case for running the ball and kicking.
However, Coach Sean Peyton was understandably concerned about leaving a minute on the clock for Sean McVay and his offense, so he decided he needed to get at least one first down – preferably while still forcing the Rams to deploy their time outs.
So, he called a first-down pass. A very safe first-down pass to Thomas, open over the middle. But the throw was at his shoe tops, and Michael couldn’t come up with it. Now what? Not only is it second-and-ten, but the clock has stopped saving the Rams a time out. Still 1:55 to go.
Kamara’s last running play of the season gains nothing. Right guard Larry Warford and tackle Ryan Ramczyk try to lead Alvin around the corner, but neither can lay a block on linebacker Mark Barron, who slips between the two of them to make the play. Third-and-ten, with the Rams using their second time out. Still 1:49 to go.
It was at this point that the infamous pass to Lewis occurred. Even after the blown call, though, the Saints still had their chances. They promptly did kick the field goal, so they had a three-point lead. Had they kept the Rams out of field goal range, they would still have won.
Failing that, they also won the overtime coin-toss. Later that evening, the New England Patriots would demonstrate what to do with an opening possession in overtime. The Saints had that same opportunity. Their three overtime offensive plays turned out to be equally instructive.
Starting with the ball on their own 26, Brees had a pass batted down at the line of scrimmage. After picking up one final first down on a pass interference that was called (the fans let the officials hear it again), a six-yard loss on a Mark Ingram run attempt (with Garrett Griffin attempting to throw the critical block against Suh), and an interception thrown while Dante Fowler was hitting Brees set in motion the final Ram drive.
What To Do?
Still and regardless, it all never should have happened. If the penalty had been called, the Saints would have been awarded a first down on the Ram 5. There would still be 1:45 left, but LA at that point would have only one timeout left. New Orleans could have drained the clock to about the last 20 seconds and then kicked their field goal.
There is no way to soft sell this moment. It was a nightmare for the fans and players of the Saints – made more bitter by the fact that they had lost in heartbreaking fashion in last year’s playoffs.
It’s a nightmare for the league as well. With their officiating always under scrutiny, they now have a documented case where the officiating sent the wrong team to the biggest game of the year. However Super Bowl LIII plays out, it will be tainted by the absence of the Saints. If Brady-Belichick win yet another ring, the question will always be, could they have beaten the Saints. And if the Rams go on to claim the title – well, what can you say, then, to the team that had actually beaten the Rams.
It’s the kind of situation that needs to prompt change, but not over-reaction – a very hard balance to strike. In that spirit, there are some changes I’d like to propose.
Send the Best Teams
First of all, for the last several years, the NFL has been sending All-Star officiating crews to the playoffs. So, instead of officiating crews that have been working together all year, the NFL has graded each official and has rewarded the highest graded officials in their respective responsibilities by sending them to officiate the playoff games.
With this moment as Exhibit One, it simply cannot be said that the officiating has been any better in the playoffs than it has been during the season. In the Indianapolis-Texas Wild Card game, the Colts were set up with a touchdown on a phantom pass interference call in the end zone. There have been several other concerning calls. In the Patriot-Chief game, a critical New England drive was kept alive by a phantom roughing-the-passer call.
If the All-Star teams are not any better than the best of the regular officiating crews, then my suggestion is to let the best crews go to the playoffs.
Opening the Box
Beyond that, I think the time has finally arrived to toss pass interference into the pool of challengeable calls. I do this with some trepidation. Opening penalties to review is a kind of Pandora’s Box, and certainly something to be wary of. Clearly, every penalty can’t be reviewable.
On the other hand, there already are penalties that are reviewed. Too many men on the field penalties can be reviewed, and no one has a concern with that for the very simple reason that too many men is completely cut and dried. When the ball is snapped one team either has twelve (or more) players on the field, or they do not. No gray area, here.
What this actually means is that the NFL is aware that some penalty calls are highly subjective. Holding is a very subjective call. Allowing holding calls to be reviewed would have horrific repercussions.
But my question is, is pass interference objective? Or subjective? I am going to argue the former.
In the video era, thousands of pass interference calls (both those that were made and those that should have been made) have been relayed to television audiences. As these enormously impactful calls have been scrutinized, I believe that the league has finally arrived at a clear standard – an objective standard, if you will – of what is and what is not pass interference. (Defensive pass interference, at any rate.) The arm bar, the turning of the receiver’s body, the holding down of the arm, etc.
Conversely, offensive pass interference still seems to be very much open to interpretation. There still doesn’t seem to be any real consistency in how much pushing off the receiver can do and still not get called for it.
I maintain,though, that at this point the standard for defensive pass interference is clear enough and consistent enough that it can be held to the review standard. It would be a bold step, but in its defense let me point out that this will likely happen again.
Sadly, it is too late to give justice to the New Orleans Saints. It is not too late to provide an opportunity for justice to the next poor team who gets denied a Super Bowl trip do to a mangled pass interference call.