Representatives for the NFL acknowledged in court Sunday the officiating crew missed a defensive pass interference and personal foul call on Los Angeles Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman in the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship Game on Jan. 20.
USA Today's Tom Schad reported the revelation came as the league is facing a lawsuit in New Orleans in the aftermath of the game. The NFL's lawyers wrote in a court filing the officials missed a penalty on Robey-Coleman:
"Because the officials on the field are humans, like the players and coaches, errors will happen. The NFL parties do not dispute that they have previously advised the Saints, including the club's head coach, that one or more penalties — for pass interference or illegal helmet-to-helmet contact — were mistakenly not called late in the NFC Championship Game, and that the NFL would like its officials on the field to make these calls. This was acknowledged immediately after the game to the coach of the New Orleans Saints by NFL Senior Vice President of Officiating Al Riveron."
The lawyers also argued NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is unable to order a replay of the NFC title game as a remedy.
Robey-Coleman led with his helmet and hit Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis well before a Drew Brees pass arrived with 1:45 remaining in the fourth quarter. Everybody, including Robey-Coleman, expected a flag that never came.
"Ah, hell yeah, that was PI," Robey-Coleman told reporters in the locker room after the game. "I did my part. Referee made the call. We respect it."
Robey-Coleman admitted he purposefully took what he thought was going to be a penalty because he was beaten on the play and was trying to prevent a touchdown.
The non-call, which took place on a drive that gave the Saints a 23-20 lead, would have led to a first down and allowed New Orleans to drain almost the entire play clock before kicking what (likely) would have been a game-winning score.
Instead, the Rams got the ball back with 1:41 remaining and drove the ball 45-yards to force overtime on a Greg Zuerlein field goal. Los Angeles advanced to the Super Bowl in overtime on a 58-yard Zuerlein field goal after Drew Brees threw an interception on the Saints' opening possession.
Saints coach Sean Payton said the league office admitted the missed call during a post-game conversation.
"We all want to get it right, right?" Payton said. "We've got the technology where we can. ... We've got plenty of technology to speed things up, and look, I'm on the competition committee, so hopefully that provides a voice. But I hope no other team has to lose a game the way we lost that one today, though. We were in a position, like I said, to be right on there on the 10-yard line, whatever-yard line, and be on our knee for three plays. It's disappointing."
"Listen, it's tough to get over it," Payton later said. "My problem, it was, I just don't know, if we were playing pickup football in the backyard, the team that committed the foul. ... It was as obvious a call, and how two guys can look at that and come up and arrive with their decision. ... It happened though, so we can't dwell on it. We'll probably never get over it."
It's hard to not sympathize with Payton and the Saints. The call seemingly altered the outcome of the game. Barring a blocked kick or miss on the chip-shot field goal, the Saints would have headed to the Super Bowl. This is also the second straight year where New Orleans' postseason run came crashing down in historic fashion, though last year's Minneapolis Miracle was the fault of a Saints player, not an official.
The Rams will now instead play the New England Patriots for a championship, with Robey-Coleman's objectively poor decision swinging the entire title picture.
"Came to the sideline, looked at the football gods, said 'thank you,'" Robey-Coleman said of what he did after the non-call. "It is what it is.
"When you catch breaks in this league, you gotta take advantage. This league is too hard to get a break and you not take advantage of it. The door opened, the door closed—just that quick."
Saints receiver Michael Thomas tweeted "Rule 17 Section 2 Article 3" early Monday morning, referring to the NFL's ability to reverse a game outcome if it was affected by "unfair acts."
Unfortunately for Thomas and his teammates, that option doesn't appear to be on the table.