The Green Bay Packers, now NFC North champs and playoff bound after their 33-28 win over the Chicago Bears, converted on fourth down three times on their final drive, culminating with a 48-yard touchdown pass from Aaron Rodgers to Randall Cobb on 4th-and-8.
However, one of those fourth-down conversions was not without a little help from the referees.
Early in the drive, on 4th-and-1 from their own 23-yard line, the Packers snapped the ball late. The play clock showed "00" and the ball hadn't begun to move from center Evan Dietrich-Smith's grip. The referees let the play go, and the Packers picked up the first down.
Claiming referee error is a subjective argument in many cases because calls often come down to the way a rule is interpreted, or even the way a fan perceives the replay versus the way a referee does—but in this case, there's nothing subjective about it. The official play clock, as Fox illustrated for its viewing audience, very clearly shows time expired before the ball had been snapped.
Realizing the Packers were late to huddle (Packers head coach Mike McCarthy was considering challenging the previous play), it's a wonder the referees weren't watching the play clock with a closer eye. Had they called an error-free game, they would have flagged the Packers and penalized them five yards for delay of game. Kevin Fishbain of HubArkush.com points out that, had the call been made, at 4th-and-6 from their own 18 the Packers may have opted to punt the ball.
The missed call didn’t win the game for Green Bay, nor did it lose the game for Chicago. The Packers still had to pick up the yardage to convert that 4th-and-1. They still had to march 77 more yards down the field. And before all of that there were three and a half quarters of football that mattered a whole bunch.
But for a team, Chicago, that saw an onside kick recovery vanish in a Week 7 loss to the Washington Redskins because a member of the kickoff team didn’t cross the line of scrimmage with his foot but instead crossed the “invisible plane” with his torso, consistent adherence to the rules in high-pressure situations would have been nice.
It’s not as if delay of game is an obscure penalty, or one that officials often swallow the whistle for. According to nflpenalties.com, there were 142 delay of game penalties called this year. Chicago was whistled for it five times. Green Bay just once. Chicago’s opponents were flagged for it twice, whereas Green Bay was the beneficiary on five occasions.
The non-call was one of many frustrating moments for the Bears on Sunday. In the second quarter they watched one of the defense’s best plays—a sack-fumble of Rodgers by Julius Peppers—turn into seven points for Green Bay after wide receiver Jarrett Boykin casually picked up what the many players thought was an incomplete pass and then jogged into the end zone.
The fluke play occurred with 3:35 remaining in the second quarter. Had it occurred in the last two minutes of the half, because the loose ball was knocked forward, Boykin’s recovery would have been marked back at the spot of the fumble, according to the rule book digest on NFL.com.
But the fumble didn’t occur in the last two minutes. And it was the Packers who, in that situation, were more aware than the Bears. And at the end of the day, forget missed calls and boneheaded plays, the only thing that matters is that the Packers—and not the Bears—are moving on to the playoffs.
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