Horrible Officiating Tarnishes NFL's Credibility on Championship Sunday

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterJanuary 21, 2019

New Orleans Saints wide receiver Tommylee Lewis (11) works for a coach against Los Angeles Rams defensive back Nickell Robey-Coleman (23) during the second half the NFL football NFC championship game Sunday, Jan. 20, 2019, in New Orleans. The Rams won 26-23. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

The game was fun. Drew Brees was brilliant. Jared Goff showed why he is the future of the NFL. The defensive play was intense. Everything about it was entertaining, spirited and must-watch television.

Then came the abomination.            

NFL officials will miss some calls, and this year, well, they've missed a whole lot. But some calls they absolutely must get right, because if they don't, it can cast a pall over not just the game, but the viability of the entire league.

That's exactly what happened in the Rams' 26-23 overtime win against the Saints in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday.

The Rams are advancing to Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta. Nothing should be taken away from them. They were resilient and mentally tough, and Goff showed why he shouldn't be forgotten in the conversation of the league's best young quarterbacks.

But because of one of the worst calls in recent memory, if not the entirety of the Super Bowl era, the Rams' legitimacy as NFC champions and potentially Super Bowl champions will be questioned.

This isn't an opinion. It's a fact.

And it didn't stop with the NFC game. In the Patriots' win over the Chiefs in the AFC title game later Sunday, there were more problems. A huge roughing-the-passer call went against the Chiefs late in the game. But it wasn't roughing the passer; it was just another call that shouldn't have been made.

Another game where officiating factored into the outcome.

This has been a problem all season, but the NFL has ignored it. The league privately believed that the popularity of the sport inoculated it. That was always a problematic view, and on the day of the two title games, it blew up in the NFL's face.

The non-call in the NFC title game happened late, with the score tied at 20. On third down, Brees threw a pass to wide receiver Tommylee Lewis. Rams corner Nickell Robey-Coleman clearly committed pass interference. And he didn't just hit Lewis early, but he also made helmet-to-helmet contact. There was only 1:45 left in regulation.

This is one of the best views of a play you will see over and over again for years to come:

The referees did not throw a flag, but Robey-Coleman admitted after the game they should have.

In his postgame press conference, Saints head coach Sean Payton said the league office also admitted it was a blown call.

And had the officials made the right call, the Saints likely would be going to the Super Bowl, not the Rams.

The Saints would have had 1st-and-goal at the Rams' 6-yard line. The Rams had only one timeout. Brian Burke of ESPN Analytics said the Saints would have been able to kneel the clock down to about 15 seconds before attempting a field goal from the 10-yard line. The proper call would have given them a 98 percent chance to win, per Burke.

Instead, the non-call meant it was 4th-and-10 at the 13. The Saints kicked the field goal and handed the ball to the Rams with 1:41 remaining. The Rams proceeded to drive down the field and make a 48-yard kick that sent the game into overtime.

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - JANUARY 20: Head coach Sean Payton of the New Orleans Saints reacts against the Los Angeles Rams during the fourth quarter in the NFC Championship game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on January 20, 2019 in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

"It's a game-changing call," Payton said. "For a call like that not to be made, man, it's just hard to swallow."

"We'll probably never get over it," he continued. "I hope no other team has to lose a game the way we lost this one."

This is the NFL's absolute worst on-field nightmare. The weeks before the Super Bowl should be a celebration. Instead, the story around one (or both) of the participants will be a win that's cheapened and delegitimized. And the scrutiny of the league and its putrid officiating will reach almost unparalleled levels.

That's the ripple effect of blown calls. It further erodes the credibility of game officials, which was mostly shot already. The only thing worse would be a gambling scandal. Blown calls make the NFL look cheap, like its refs are bargain-basement and the league doesn't know what it's doing.

When even a casual fan sees a play and can tell it was the wrong call, that isn't just the refs' problem; it's the league's. It makes fans wonder whether they're watching wrestling.

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - JANUARY 20: Drew Brees #9 of the New Orleans Saints reacts against the Los Angeles Rams during the fourth quarter in the NFC Championship game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on January 20, 2019 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Here is what the Rams and their fans will say in response: Everyone needs to stop crying. The Saints blew a lead, and we made a strong comeback. Shut up.

A lot of that is true. The Rams showed grit. Their defense slowed the Saints' passing game after Brees and Payton picked it apart early, and it held Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram to 46 yards rushing on 17 carries (although Kamara also had 11 catches for 96 yards).

Goff was only 25-of-40 for 297 yards with a touchdown and a pick, but those numbers don't do justice to the number of big throws he made late while under relentless pressure.

All of that is true.

That call, though. It changes everything.

It was so bad, it will be talked about for years—maybe decades. Hell, maybe forever.

It will be remembered as one of the worst calls of all time, and one of the worst game moments in NFL history. It's an abomination that ruined what should have been a celebration.

               

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @mikefreemanNFL.

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