The New England Patriots lost Sunday night in Baltimore to the Ravens, 31-30, on a last second 27-yard field goal from Justin Tucker. Or was it a field goal? It was a fitting end to a game that raised more questions than answers.
The focus will be on the horrific officiating. This game will not be soon forgotten. For the first two weeks, I haven’t been as hard on the replacement officials as most. As far as I was concerned, there hadn’t been a game which was decided by the officials’ ineptness. That all changed Sunday night. I am now on board the “These refs are awful” bandwagon. Make room, please. I don’t mean any disrespect to the replacement officials. It is not their fault they are thrust into this situation– seemingly thrown into the deep end of a pool of sharks and asked to fight for their survival. Right now they are sinking and getting shredded. It is up to commissioner Roger Goodell to fix this problem, and fix it quickly before the playoff landscape gets distorted even further.
Sunday night’s game had huge playoff implications. The Ravens, along with the Houston Texans, are the two teams I would consider the two biggest hurdles for the Patriots on their path to the Super Bowl. The Ravens victory moves their record to 2-1. The Patriots loss drops them to 1-2, which is the first time since 2003 they have been under .500. With head-to-head being the first tiebreaker, the Ravens essentially already have a two-game lead for home field advantage when, and if, these two teams match up again in the playoffs. The Houston Texans, meanwhile, are the only undefeated team in the AFC at 3-0, also a two-game lead on the Patriots.
It is very rare that I blame officials for losses, and I will not entirely blame them for this one. The Patriots had chances to take the game out of the hands of the officials. But it is difficult to ignore two phantom defensive holding penalties on Devin McCourty and Brandon Spikes on a key fourth quarter drive for the Ravens. The Patriots seemed to have the game under control. The crowd was turning ugly and directing their angst at the officials. With just over seven minutes left in the game, New England had a 30-21 lead. The Ravens were starting their drive from their own 8-yard line. Moments later, following a holding penalty, the Ravens were facing a 1st-and-20. Things were looking solid for the Patriots.
On 2nd-and-14 at his own 10-yard line, Flacco lobbed a pass down the right sideline which fell harmlessly out of bounds. McCourty pumped his fist at the crowd along the sidelines. But, wait. The officials called holding on McCourty, getting the Ravens out of a huge hole. McCourty barely grazed Torrey Smith’s shoulder pad with his finger tips as the wide receiver released off the line of scrimmage. NBC’s veteran play-by-play announcer Al Michaels said resignedly, “You tell me.” Analyst Chris Collingworth simple reply was, “Wow…. wow.”
Flacco would lead the team methodically downfield deep into Patriots’ territory following the phantom penalty. The Patriots defense finally appeared to make a play, sacking Flacco for a 10 yard loss which would have set up a 2nd-and-goal from the New England 20-yard line. But hold up. Or should I say, holding. The refs flagged Brandon Spikes for holding tight end Dennis Pitta, giving the Ravens a first-and-goal from the five-yard line. Spikes contact appeared clearly within the five-yard chuck zone, and didn’t seem to entail any grabbing or holding. Flacco would hit Torrey Smith for a touchdown on the very next play.
That drive was pivotal. It closed the Patriots lead to 30-28 with four minutes remaining in the game. When the Patriots offense failed to run out the clock, the outcome seemed inevitable. The Ravens would get the ball back with 1:55 left and drive down to the NE 9, thanks to a legitimate (this time) pass interference call against McCourty. Justin Tucker’s 27-yard field goal, as time expired, was called good after it flipped end-over-end over the right upright. Belichick would chase after an official following the kick, at one point grabbing the official’s arm, looking for an explanation if the kick could or should be reviewed. The camera angle that was shown on television was inconclusive, but I’m sure a media goliath like ESPN must have other angles, particularly the camera which is positioned right on the cross bar of the goal posts, which were never shown.
According to Mike Pereira, former vice president of officiating for the NFL, field goals are reviewable but only if they are below the height of the goal posts. Kicks which go above the uprights are not reviewable, presumably because officials don’t have depth perception, I guess. For the record, Pereira says it was “impossible to tell” if the kick was good.
In any event, it was an appropriate end to the game, one which could cost the Patriots a home playoff game and possibly a trip to the Super Bowl.