Questionable Decisions, Worse Officiating, and One Great Penalty

I’m not sure what was more surprising.  That the Baltimore Ravens were actually flagged with an offensive holding call.  Or the play on which that call occurred.

Late in their Week Seven victory over Seattle, the Ravens were called for holding.  After five complete games and a little more than half-way through the second quarter of the sixth game – after more than 200 consecutive running plays – the Baltimore Ravens were finally flagged again for holding.  With first-and-ten at the Buffalo 49-yard line, fullback Patrick Ricard lifted the right shoulder pad of Lorenzo Alexander briefly while Gus Edwards scooted past.

Don’t get me wrong.  It was a penalty.  But over the previous five-and-a-half games the Ravens committed many infractions at least that severe without getting called for any of them.  Right guard Marshall Yanda begins almost every play by grabbing his opponent’s shoulder pads.

Faced with a very rare first-and-twenty, quarterback Lamar Jackson threw too high for his receiver and was intercepted on the next play.

But even though what must have been a record streak of runs with no holding calls has finally come to an end, Buffalo – Baltimore’s opponent last Sunday after noon – could still hope to have been better served by the officiating crew.

On the very last play of the third quarter – with the Bills still within 8 points – Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen heaved a pass up the right sideline to the Raven 33-yard line, where Robert Foster waited to pull it in.  And he might have, too.  But beaten defender Jimmy Smith came up behind Foster and went through his back trying to make a play on the ball – a process that is supposed to draw an interference penalty.  But the official standing right in front of them waved it off.

In the end, though, it probably wouldn’t have mattered.  So dominant was Baltimore’s defense that it is doubtful that Buffalo would have managed anything even with a first down deep into Raven territory.

In the game’s first half, the Raven defensive unit sacked Allen 4 times and held Buffalo to 74 total yards.  They also created one crushing turnover that set the offense up on the Bills’ 24-yards line, leading to the game’s first touchdown.  The second half featured two more sacks, while Josh completed just 9 of his last 22 passes.  The Bills last failed drive was helped along by three big defensive penalties from the Ravens that set Buffalo up with a first-and-ten from the 18-yard line.

But Buffalo never could handle the Raven blitzes, and the series ended with three consecutive incompletions to wrap up Baltimore’s 24-17 victory (gamebook) (summary).

Jackson continues to garner the lion’s share of the attention that Baltimore is getting.  I continue to maintain that the real heroes are the defenders that keep Jackson from having to play from behind.

The Patriots Feel Their Pain

Of course, when it came to adventures in officiating, no Week 14, playoff-implicating game was more excruciating than Kansas City’s 23-16 conquest of New England (gamebook) (summary).

With the rulebook allowing a coach a maximum of three challenges, there has always been the question of what happens when the same team gets screwed four or more times in the same game.  What then?

I’m not sure if that has ever happened before last Sunday, so Jerome Boger’s crew may have made history that afternoon.  The game in general was not well officiated at all – on both sides.  Several penalties were missed outright, and some that were called were mystifying.  Kansas City’s Travis Kelce was called for offensive pass interference on a play where nothing he did even approached being illegal.

But the brunt of the poor officiating was born by New England, who had three touchdowns taken away from them – two of them after they had run out of challenges.

Time to Revisit the System

Of course, the fact that it was the Patriots does make the outcome a little more palatable.  Without much doubt, New England is the NFL’s most hated team.  Moreover, over the years, there have been a great many teams that have felt that the Patriots received the benefit of a good many pivotal officiating calls.  So a little comeuppance here is not something that will be widely mourned across the NFL.

However, since something similar could happen to any team at a critical juncture of the season, I think it’s time for an overhaul of the replay system.

Recognizing the potential for disaster, here, the NFL over the years has taken significant measures to soften the three-challenge maximum.  All scoring plays are automatically reviewed, so no coach has to expend a challenge.  The same is true of all turnovers.  This, of course, applies to plays that are ruled on the field as either scores or turnovers.  If a player scores or turns the ball over and that is not how it is ruled on the field, the coach will still have to challenge.  Both of those events happened to New England on Sunday.

Moreover – and most significantly – all challenges are automatically handled by the officiating crew inside the last two minutes of either half and for all of any overtime periods.  Ponder, for a moment, the implications of this.  Inside the last two minutes and in overtime, the entire concept of a coach’s challenge is done away with.  The officiating gods who watch over the field of play simply stop play when a questionable moment occurs, and then they review it.  It is the simplest and most elegant aspect of the entire replay system.

But it is only employed for four minutes of every game.  If it were true that the only times a bad officiating call could determine the outcome of a game were in the last two minutes of the half or in overtime, that would be sufficient.  But every week the NFL demonstrates that bad calls do – or potentially could if not overturned – decide the outcome of a game at any time.  Why cannot the NFL simply do from the first minute of the game what it so easily and effectively does in its last minute?

Before some other team less hated than the Patriots gets its playoff hopes dashed by an antiquated replay system, it’s time the NFL abandon the challenge system entirely.  Just watch the game and fix what needs fixing.  Simple.

More Patriots-Chiefs

It does injustice to the game, though, to lay New England’s defeat squarely on the officials.  In spite of Boger’s crew’s best efforts to bury the Patriots, this is a game New England should at least have tied and could easily have won.  Their own decisions and execution in the kicking game doomed them every bit as much as the bad non-calls.

With 2:06 left in the first quarter and New England ahead 7-3, kicker Nick Folk had a makeable 41-yard field goal blocked.  By the time that the second quarter was half way through, Kansas City had pulled ahead 17-7.  Now the Patriots faced fourth-and-seven from the Chief 27-yard line.  But, instead of attempting a makeable 44-yard field goal, Tom Brady threw an incomplete pass.

Now, we are in the waning moments of the third quarter.  New England has just scored to pull to within ten points of KC, 23-13.  If they had gone for and made the 44-yard field goal, the score would have been 23-16, and New England would have kicked the point to make it a six-point game.  If they had made both previous field goals, the score would have been 23-19, and, again New England would have kicked.

But now, they went for a two-point conversion to make it a one-score game, with James White’s attempted run up the middle falling about a half yard short.

The game finally ended with the Patriots throwing incomplete on fourth-and-three from the KC five-yard line.  The score, at that point, favored the Chiefs 23-16.  If they had kicked the second field goal and the extra-point, it would have been a 23-20 game, and New England would have had a relatively routine 22-yard field goal to tie the game.  If they had made all of their kicking opportunities up to that point, the game would have been tied, and Folk’s potential short kick would have given them the win.

Aggression in a head coach can be a useful thing.  From time to time, though, those decisions can come back to haunt you.

And Another Thing

One more note on that fourth-down pass.  Brady was trying to throw to Julian Edelman in the end zone.  Edelman never was open.  But Jakobi Meyers was.  Edelman’s route carried him in between Meyers and Tyrann Mathieu, who had Jakobi in coverage.  A throw to Meyers would have produced – at the very least – a first down, and it is unlikely that Mathieu could have kept him out of the end zone.

One of the reasons that double-teams on Edelman and White work so well, is that Brady sometimes doesn’t trust his other receivers to make catches in critical moments of the game.

And One More Thing

At the end of the day, New England had three scoring drives – and needed help on all of them.  The initial touchdown was scored on a trick play after getting big first downs on a couple of KC defensive penalties.  The second touchdown came after a blocked kick, and the field goal followed an interception.  There have been a lot of days lately, where this offense seems incapable of putting together a scoring drive of any considerable length.

A lot of ink has been expended discussing what is wrong with the New England offense.  Most believe that the receiving corps is too thin.  While another play-making receiver wouldn’t hurt – especially if that receiver were a tight end – this is honestly not the Patriots’ biggest problem.

Always one of the NFL’s best, the New England offensive line is now among the worst in football.  They entered the week averaging just 94.5 rushing yards per game, and just 3.5 yards per carry – both figures among the worst in the league.  Additionally, they struggle against almost every blitz that opposing defenses throw at them.  Brady spends most of his afternoons running for his life and throwing the ball away.  If they cannot fix this, the receivers won’t matter.  Even if they do get Gronkowski back.

Saints Aggression Also Comes Back to Bite Them

San Francisco defensive back Ahkello Witherspoon committed, arguably, the best penalty of the season last Sunday in New Orleans.

With 4:58 left in the first quarter, Saint quarterback Drew Brees heaved a pass toward the end zone, where tight-end Jared Cook leaped to pull down.  As he returned to earth, Witherspoon rung his bell (as they say) with a shot to the head, drawing the foul.

That penalty achieved two things that eventually made all the difference in the 49ers’ 48-46 win (gamebook) (summary).  First, the head-shot knocked Cook out of the game.  In the early going, Cook was proving to be a huge match-up difficulty for San Fran.  On the field for 8 plays, Jared had caught two touchdown passes totaling 64 yards.  The 49ers now would not have to deal with him for the rest of the afternoon.

The second thing the penalty did was move the extra-point try to the one yard line.

Already up 13-7, New Orleans could have kicked the extra point and taken fifteen yards on the kickoff.  But, with the option to try the two-point conversion from the one, Saints’ coach Sean Payton couldn’t let the opportunity pass.  And when the conversion failed, the Saints spent the rest of the game chasing that point.

With one minute left in the game, Brees’ fifth touchdown pass of the game pushed New Orleans back in front 46-45.  Had they kicked the earlier point, it would have been a 47-45 lead, and New Orleans would have kicked the point here, too.  But realizing that a two-point lead at this point would still leave them vulnerable to a game-winning field goal, they were compelled to make a second two-point try.  This one also failed.

For the game, these two offenses matched each other almost perfectly.  Each team scored six touchdowns and added two field goals.  Each turned the ball over once.  While San Fran punted three times, New Orleans punted just once, but also turned the ball over on downs and possessed the ball when the first half ended.

But the 49ers kicked 6 extra points.  The Saints had only 4 with two missed two-point attempts.

If they had scored on that first attempt, the decision would have been hailed as brilliant.

How Can We Trust the Texans

One week after a galvanizing victory over their New England nemesis, Houston was pounded into submission by the 5-8 Denver Broncos.  The final was 38-24, though at one point the Denver lead was 38-3.

All along, I have been supposing that Houston would ultimately take control of the very competitive AFC South.  Over recent weeks, though, it has been clear that the Tennessee Titans have been the division’s best team, and now they have two games against Houston over the last three weeks – beginning this Sunday.

It is difficult not to see the Titans finishing on top here.

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