Shortly after the New England Patriots completed their comeback to defeat the Jacksonville Jaguars 24-20 in the AFC Championship Game, our colleagues at Big Cat Country posted an article with the promising title “3 awful calls by refs that cost the Jaguars the game”. The story takes a look at three allegedly botched decisions by the officiating crew around referee Clete Blakeman.
Author Ryan Day argues that the referees gave the Jaguars “a clear disadvantage in a game where there was zero margin for error” and that the officiating was a “major contributing factor” to Jacksonville's defeat. The AFC South champions were flagged six times for a total of 98 yards, while the Patriots saw only one penalty called against them resulting in a 10-yard loss.
Clearly, something's gotta give, right? No, not really. The officials were not the reason why the Patriots beat the Jaguars yesterday. The calls they made surely did contribute to momentum shifts and big plays being made but to say that they “cost the Jaguars the game” appears to be a bit of a stretch – especially considering that the referees were praised after the game by the leading experts on officiating, footballzebras.com.
A classic playoff game that started out slow, but surely picked up as it neared its finish. Clete Blakeman, in his first conference championship, along with the all-star crew, had the game under control from start to finish. Even with some close calls such as a pass interference late in the first half and the fumble recovery by Jacksonville early in the fourth quarter, they were all on target. Blakeman and crew should be proud with the game they worked, as it was both well-deserved for all seven men. This game was well-officiated from beginning to end.
Clearly a different point of view than Day's. So how did the two men reach so drastically different conclusions? By looking at the three supposedly awful calls, we might find out why and whether or not the notion that the referees played a big role in the Jaguars' ultimate demise holds any water.
The first play is a pass interference call against Jacksonville's A.J. Bouye, who was sprinting alongside Patriots wide receiver Brandin Cooks down the sideline. Cooks was forced out of bounds prompting the side judge to throw the penalty flag. According to Football Zebras' Ben Austro, the call was a correct one as there was mutual hand-fighting going on but Bouye using both his hands shortly before the football arrives is reason enough for a flag to be thrown.
Shortly afterwards, the Patriots scored their first touchdown of the day to cut their deficit to 14-10. The score, a run by James White, was followed by Jaguars linebacker Myles Jack slamming the runner to the ground – a play that could have resulted in an unnecessary roughness call but did not. Instead, it led to a scuffle that had referees and players rush in to break it up immediately.
...the official breaks up the scrum after this late takedown in the end zone. (2/2) pic.twitter.com/Lhvb2ukL0y— Rich Hill (@PP_Rich_Hill) January 22, 2018
During the scuffle, a shot of one of the referees smiling was filmed by CBS' camera crew – according to Twittersphere conspiracy theorists a clear sign that the referees were in the Patriots' pocket. Day picked up on this and wrote that the referee was happy after seeing the Patriots score. The smiles did not have to do anything with the touchdown, however, but rather with the referee pulling away Cameron Fleming, who himself was pulling away White from a potential altercation with Jaguars safety Tashaun Gipson. Nothing shady about it.
The second play Big Cat Country deemed game-deciding was a fourth quarter fumble by Dion Lewis: The running back lost the football, it was picked up by Myles Jack but instead of a potential return touchdown, the play was ruled dead even though Jacksonville ultimately did receive the fumble recovery.
According to Ben Austro, the ruling was not wrong:
[T]here is a question as to whether Myles Jack is down by contact. Whenever a ball is stripped from a player in possession on the ground, it is down by contact and no fumble. In this case, the ball was not in possession but taken from an opponent’s hands, so this is deemed as “contact” by the Patriots as Myles begins to take control.
Is it possible that there was no hand-to-hand contact? Yes, but there is no way that can be perceived, so the officials are instructed to treat this as down by contact. The contact, by the way, only has to occur when a player is beginning to secure the ball. It is held until the player finishes establishing control, and is dead at that point. This was correctly ruled as down by contact on the recovery.
This explanation certainly makes sense as Lewis and Jack, during the process of the running back losing the football, were both going to the ground. Another reason for the ruling might have been that it was not Jack who was ruled down by contact on the whistle that blew the play dead and prevented the return but Lewis himself. The referee making the call, down judge Mark Hittner, did likely not see the football come lose until Lewis was already firmly on the ground.
Yes, the whistle might have been blown too quickly but considering the close nature of the fumble and when Lewis lost control of the football, it is not hard to see why the call was ultimately made the way it was. It did cost Jacksonville a chance for a touchdown, yes, but as Austro writes, it was a correct application of the rules.
The final play that allegedly cost the Jaguars the game appeared on one of the final plays, a run by Dion Lewis that was only sparked because of a hold on the perimeter. This call could have gone either way. According to Day, the hold by Dwayne Allen is “clear as day” but considering how Blakeman and his crew were officiating all game long, it is not hard to see them go with the “let them play” mantra in this situation.
Ultimately, the officiating crew did make a lot of close calls – and most went the Patriots' way. But to say that they cost Jacksonville the game is a stretch of the imagination. After all, the officiating did neither contribute to the Jaguars being called for a delay of game coming out of a timeout nor to them getting too cute and kneeling out the first half with almost a minute left on the game clock.
The officiating did not allow Danny Amendola to run wild in the secondary in the fourth quarter. It did not help Ryan Allen place perfect punts. It did not contribute to Tom Brady converting third downs in crunch time. No, it is not the reason why the Jaguars lost.