Controversy reigned as the New England Patriots defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers 27-24 on Sunday night.
At issue was an apparent catch in the end zone by Jesse James with 28 seconds remaining. The referees initially ruled James had caught the ball but overturned the decision upon further review. Two plays later, Ben Roethlisberger threw an interception that sealed the win for New England.
James' non-catch was similar to Dez Bryant's overturned 31-yard catch in the 2015 NFC Divisional Round against the Green Bay Packers. James maintained possession of the ball until he fell to the ground, at which point the ball came loose.
"I'm sick about it," said James after the game, via ESPN's Jeremy Fowler. "I'll be thinking about it all night."
CBS Sports shared a replay of the sequence:
CBS Sports @CBSSports
Catch or no catch? https://t.co/tYotvL6jhl2017-12-18 00:32:21
Fox Sports officiating expert Mike Pereira defended the final decision, saying the referee's interpreted the rule correctly:
Mike Pereira @MikePereira
Look, here is the rule. If you’re going to the ground you have to hold onto the ball when the ball hits the ground…Going to the ground trumps lunging/reaching to try and get extra yards or score a TD. You do that at your own risk. It’s incomplete…just ask Dez2017-12-18 00:25:06
David Helman of the Dallas Cowboys' official website questioned whether James' non-catch was actually a parallel to Bryant's:
David Helman @HelmanDC
The difference, for me, between Dez @ Green Bay and this most recent debacle is that Jesse James clearly broke the plane of the end zone. If he established possession outside the end zone, then broke the plane, play should be dead right then. ... right?2017-12-18 00:20:50
Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid was among those puzzled by what is and isn't a catch in the NFL:
Joel Embiid @JoelEmbiid
Steelers definitely got screwed.. Those rules don’t make sense2017-12-18 00:23:49
NFL Network's Rich Eisen argued the NFL needs to address the rule, which would help avoid situations like what unfolded in Heinz Field:
Rich Eisen @richeisen
When a rule leaves fans confused — because merely breaking plane is fine for a runner holding onto the ball — and/or dissatisfied and disillusioned, it’s time to change the rule. The ball moved after he broke the plane. And he wouldn’t have lunged had points not been at stake. https://t.co/EMe2kr3Lof2017-12-18 00:33:48
Likely adding more anger for those in Pittsburgh, Sunday's loss carried significant playoff ramifications in the AFC. FanSided's Matt Verderame highlighted how the playoff picture would've looked a lot different had the Patriots lost:
Matt Verderame @MattVerderame
Think about how the AFC playoff picture just shifted. If the #Steelers win, they are the No. 1 seed and the #Patriots are the No. 3. Now, everything goes through Foxboro. Again. Good night.2017-12-18 00:27:27
Here's how others reacted to the call:
James Koh @JamesDKoh
Jesse James caught the ball, got his knee down, was not touched, and essentially carried the ball into the end zone. It is absolutely not the same as catching the ball IN the end zone. Absolutely horrendous call.2017-12-18 00:24:08
Dan Le Batard Show @LeBatardShow
At every time in the recoded history of football at any level except a few minutes ago, that’s am obvious touchdown catch.2017-12-18 00:23:36
Cecil Hurt @CecilHurt
You know your league has an issue when Jesse James gets robbed.2017-12-18 00:44:01
Chris Cooley @thecooleyzone
Jesse James catch overturned is a hard rule to comprehend. That’s a catch all day. Then fake spike/slant is insane. Tough way to lose2017-12-18 00:22:29
In the aftermath of the controversy created during the 2015 playoffs, the NFL attempted to rewrite the rules for what constitutes a catch. At the time, the wording was confusing and didn't really resolve the issue, and Sunday drove that point home even further.
Given the outcry immediately after the Patriots' victory, it seems highly likely the league will again look at the rulebook to clear up the confusion surrounding catches.