Before I say anything else – Congratulations to the New England Patriots organization for reaching the Super Bowl for the third time in four years and eight time in 17 years. Nobody in the league has been able to even come close to the consistent excellence they have displayed. With that being said, I can’t help but see a theme that has followed the team throughout the 2017/18 season – they have had a lot of crucial calls go their way. I’m not suggesting to any degree, that they haven’t earned a spot in this title game, but rather I want to point out a few incidences I have noticed over the course of their campaign. Let me elaborate:
First of all, Bill Belichick’s teams have always been very disciplined. Once again, they were top five in penalty yardage for and against them. I won’t take anything away from them in terms of how they have avoided unnecessary situations, but rather I want to look at some of the specific plays that have occurred in their games. I cut all these myself from Gamepass, so I hope the quality is okay.
I have observed three touchdowns, that have been washed away against them throughout the season. All three of these plays were ruled touchdowns.
In week six the Jets’ Austin-Seferian Jenkins scored a touchdown with 8:24 left in the fourth quarter and the Pats up 24-14. The TE clearly catches the ball, immediately turns upfield and reaches for the goal-line. On his way, the ball is jarred loose for an instant of a second, before he recovers it again and falls onto the pylon. Watching the replay, you understand the theory behind him not having control throughout the full play. You can see the ball move, but I don’t spot anything that would make me think he didn’t regain possession and more importantly there’s nothing that would make me think you should change the ruling on the field. Instead of Gang Green coming within a field-goal, the Patriots got the ball back off a touchback in position to run some clock and the game ended 24-17. No matter what you think about the Jets, they played New England very tough that day and were in control of the game early on. This changed the complexity of the entire afternoon.
When the Bills travelled to Foxborough in week 16, Kelvin Benjamin brought in a catch in the back-corner of the end-zone with three seconds left in the first half – or so it seemed. Watching the play in slow-motion, you notice that it took the receiver a little while to really control the catch, but you can his foot still touching the ground off the drag of the back-leg. The refs afterwards said his foot was off the ground once he established possession and it’s hard to tell if it might have been. This is the closest call among these three touchdowns or rather non-touchdowns. But once again, the ruling on the field was six points for Buffalo and there is no way you can count this as 100 percent clear, indisputable video evidence to change the call on the field. New England went on to roll the Bills in the second half, but this could have been a completely different ball-game if the score was 17:13 for the Bills coming out of halftime. You never know.
And finally the play I have the biggest problem with and the one that was talked about the most by NFL fans: In week 15, with the Patriots up 27:24 in a thriller at Heinz-Field, Big Ben took his team down to the opposing ten-yard line and threw the ball over the middle to his tight-end Jesse James. James was forced to leave his feet and extend his arms, then brought the ball into his chest while torqueing his upper body towards the end-zone. Then his knee touches the ground, he extends his arms again to reach for the goal-line and when his lower elbow hits the ground, the ball finally starts to move. I understand the fact he has to survive the ground, but looking at it, he clearly establishes possession, would be ruled down if he was touched, since his knee hits the ground, and he then makes a secondary so-called “football-move” by reaching for the goal-line. I don’t think there was a person in the stadium or in front of the TV, who thought the call would be reversed.
This obviously is a league-wide problem. The catch-rule is out of control in my opinion, because players, coaches and probably even some referees don’t fully understand what it takes for a catch to be completed. As silly as this sounds, but the average fan would probably make a better decision on what is a catch and what isn’t. The rule book puts the men in charge into a difficult situation, but I believe this wouldn’t have to be and shouldn’t be this hard to decipher.
Getting back to the case of the Patriots though – Having three of situations go your way over the course of one season is completely unproportional. Especially since I didn’t see one game, where a call like this went the opposite direction and hurt the Patriots. If I missed one, despite watching basically every snap the Patriots played this season, please feel free to let me know!
In the Divisional Round when the Titans travelled to Foxborough, they got off to a surprising start with a touchdown by rookie Corey Davis to get on the board first. In the second quarter, the reigning Super Bowl champs scored on consecutive drives and forced Tennessee into three-and-outs both times they possessed the ball. The underdogs managed to keep them to five yards over their next three snaps and the Patriots lined up to give it back to them via a punt. The long-snapper moved his head back quickly and the first man to his left flinched, drawing the Titans’ Brandon Trawick into the neutral zone and giving New England a fresh set of downs. The original announcement was a false-start by number 96, but they changed it to a neutral zone infraction. That’s unheard of in general. If all 11 players are set and the snap is imminent, the slightest movement on the offensive line should always be whistled and flagged immediately. Before the play starts, the referees are advised to look at everybody along the offensive formation, especially the interior of it. The Patriots went on to score another touchdown and make the score 21-7. I never really believed the Titans had a chance to win this game, but you can’t dismiss the fact, they would have had a chance to tie up the score and a call like this should never be missed, no matter the gravity of the game. I didn’t see anything similar all year long.
That brings me to the AFC Championship game versus the Jaguars.
There’s an obvious discrepancy in the penalty numbers. The Patriots were flagged just once for ten yards, while the Jaguars amassed about a hundred yards of penalty yardage. Like I said, the Patriots are a very disciplined team and I understand that, but there’s barely any occurrences of a squad not drawing more than one flag. In fact, the last time that happened in the playoffs was seven year ago by – you guessed it – these Patriots. I can look past the fact that the Jaguars were penalized twice for defensive pass-interference despite having this foul accepted against them the same number of times from week two of the regular season on. I have no problem with the 15-yard penalty on the hit to head against Gronk. What I can’t really wrap my head around is the fact an average offensive line like the Patriots didn’t commit a single holding penalty on offense against this ferocious Sacksonville front and we never heard names like Calais Campbell or Malik Jackson all game long. There’s three specific situations I want to point out.
After being held to a field-goal over the first 28 minutes of the game, the Patriots finally started to put a drive together with a couple of dump-offs to the running-backs and an unnecessary roughness against Gronkowski. With 1:23 left in the half, A.J. Bouye and Brandin Cooks were running down the sideline together. About ten yards downfield the DB initiated some contact and stayed glued to his man. The receiver gave up on a ball out of reach and even stepped out of bounds. The referee was right in front of the two and decided to throw a flag. If Cooks fought his way downfield and Bouye tried to use his arm as bar to slow him down or something I can look past the fact the pass wasn’t catchable, but he didn’t even seem like he thought he had a chance at it. Watch the play again.
I don’t know what my readers think of this, but to me this looks like perfect stack-technique by the corner and that’s how I would teach my players to do it. The contact is initiated before the pass is being released and remains throughout the play. If you want to be very strict, I’d understand a defensive hold, but that’s five yards instead of 32. At the end both players kind of extend their arms and it looks like more contact than it actually was, but you can even see Bouye turn his head and try to find the ball in the air at the very end.
Okay, that’s pass-interference nowadays. Refs call it as soon as there is any contact downfield, but how about the Dion Lewis fumble a minute into the fourth quarter? Brady threw a screen to Danny Amendola, who threw it back across the field to number 33, who sprinted down the sideline with blockers in front of him. After a 20-yard gain, Myles Jack came in from behind and clearly punched the ball loose. Lewis then went to the ground without him ever regaining control of it and Jack just took it away from him. At the moment, Jack had possession of the ball himself, no offensive player was there to touch him, with Lewis appearing to just miss him with his spikes, and he should been allowed to return the fumble. I know it’s not easy to see if the RB was down by contact, but once the ball appears to move and somebody recovers it at the end, there’s reason to believe a fumble occurred and it’s a live play. Aren’t you supposed to let it run then and review it afterwards? At least that’s always the statement that comes up when referees say they weren’t quite sure and wanted to look at the play once more. Jack was on his feet already when the whistle came and when you look very closely, the sideline ref even removed the whistle from his mouth because he wasn’t really sure if it was a live-ball. Somebody else on the crew whistled the play dead and Jack went from running up the sideline with two blockers and some O-linemen chasing him from behind to setting up the Jaguars offense at the spot of the recovery, after they had not been able to do anything in the second half. The drive ended in a three-and-out and New England was never really punished outside of giving up some field position, while this looked like it should have been a scoop-and-score and put the game out of reach with three scores difference.
More importantly, the Sacksonville defensive front was exhausted in the second half because some of those Patriots drives were extended and they had to stay on the field. Their offensive line is about average and if it was like Brady got rid of the ball quickly, I would understand why there was no pressure on him, but he stood back there and could just scan the field. Nobody has been able to do that all year long, especially if they can’t run the ball effectively.
Even with Stephon Gilmore making that incredible extension to knock down the pass on fourth down, the Jags still had a chance to get the ball back with about one-and-a-half minutes left in game, if they were able to force a three-and-out on defense, because they had saved all three of their timeouts. After two stops on first and second down, the Patriots needed nine yards to put the game on ice. They decided to go conservative, lining up in 21 personnel and calling an off-tackle run to the left. Dion Lewis cut under the block by his full-back James Develin on the safety and then aimed to the outside. While he had some room, Telvin Smith – probably the fastest linebacker in the league – seemed to have an angle on him and came down the line, looking to bring down the ball-carrier. Tight-end Dwayne Allen tried to seal the edge, but Smith fought through the block and put himself into position to attempt the tackle. Allen grabbed the jersey of number 50 on each side of his inside shoulder, taking away his momentum and not letting him get away. This should have resulted in a third-and-nineteen, more than likely at least giving Jacksonville a shot to win the game. Most coaches will tell you there’s holding on every single play and not everything is called, but usually this is more the case when it happens away from the ball. This particular incident occurred at the point of attack, where referees should always keep their eyes on. That’s a pretty big miss in my opinion, especially with some of the ticky-tack calls against the Jaguars earlier.
I strongly believe it was the Jaguars’ fault taking their foot off the gas and that’s why they lost the game. That showed up when they didn’t even run a play with 55 seconds left in the first half and just the fact that went back from opening up their offense with spread-formations and using the space inside to loading up people in the box and just dare the defense to stop them. And I would never say that the referees are in on anything, but I get why people are upset when there’s photos of refs with a smile in the end-zone after a Patriot touchdown and the head-man being the first person in the entire stadium to congratulate Brady. And there’s a reason people are joking about the guys in those striped shirts being the MVPs for the Patriots and stuff like that.
All of this is not hating on the Patriots. Would I have liked to see a different team represent the AFC in the Super Bowl? – Yes. Do I respect what New England has done in the Brady-Belichick era? – How can I not? They were without a doubt the best and most consistent team of their conference. I’m just stunned that it’s possible to have this amount of footage you can show to make a cae for the referees helping them throughout the year. Is this just a collection of a bunch of fortunate events that could have happened to any team or did the Patriots get some extra help? I’ll let you decide.