The Jets had just missed the field goal, with a little help from Vince Wilfork's pinkie finger knocking the ball off course. The Patriots had the ball on their own 42 yard line with 5:16 left in the game. New England was clinging to a one point lead and would have done anything to ice the game with a clock killing drive.
Brandon Bolden ran for three yards. Tom Brady threw a pass to Danny Amendola that fell incomplete. Only 40 seconds had been drained off the clock and it was 3rd and 7.
It wasn't what the Patriots wanted.
So Josh McDaniels dialed up a slip screen (a call that I applaud) for Amendola who scampered up the field, was body-checked by guard Ryan Wendell, and spiraled to the ground at the sticks. The Patriots thought they had the first; the Jets thought they had the stop.
The refs came out to measure and the television camera angle showed the Patriots as short.
It looked short due to the ball placement and it was announced fourth and inches- and the Patriots were going to go for it. Rex Ryan threw the challenge flag and said he was disputing the first down call.
Wait, what? The refs had marked the Patriots short- everyone thought it was fourth down. But it turns out that the refs decided to call a first down for the Patriots as both teams headed to their sidelines. The sideline judges were confused and didn't even set up the sticks at the new first down marker- a handful of the refs thought it was fourth down.
It was an unmitigated disaster by the refs, no question. They were imprecise and didn't explain a crucial situation, which forced Rex Ryan to throw a challenge flag. He can't be blamed for the challenge when no one had any idea what was happening.
But this also doesn't mean that the Jets were jobbed.
For those upset w/#NEvsNYJ first down spot, the angle on TV was not down the line. If it was, you probably would have seen a first down.— Mike Pereira (@MikePereira) December 21, 2014
Look at the image of the ball and the sticks again. Note that the camera angle isn't in direct line with the sticks, how the football isn't aligned north-south in the image. It means that camera was coming from the left of the first down marker and that it wasn't providing the viewers a clear depiction of the actual ball placement.
So to recap, the refs messed up and had no idea what was happening. CBS didn't do a great job showing the ball being level to the first down marker and instead used a poor angle. But the Patriots got the first down and that's all that matters.