Since Ben Watson has recently rejoined the New England Patriots, I thought the second “What If” article should be about his play against Denver in the AFC Divisional Game in the 2005 season. It is, in my opinion, one of the worst calls in NFL history (there might be an article coming about another one some time soon). The ramifications from that play could have changed the outcome of not only the game, but the entire playoffs that season.
With 1:03 left in the third quarter of a 10-6 game, Tom Brady took the snap from the Broncos’ 5-yard line. Pressure from safety Nick Ferguson forced him right, and he threw a pass off his back foot, into the end zone, towards Troy Brown. Champ Bailey stepped in front of the pass, intercepted it, and raced up the Broncos sideline. After stepping out of a tackle by Kevin Faulk at the 45, it looked as though there was only grass between Bailey and the end zone. Then, just as he was about to score, Watson sent him, and the ball, flying into the end zone.
Well, at least we know the ball went into the end zone. The refs, one of whom Watson passed on his way to tackle Bailey, said the ball went out at the 1, and, instead of it being and touchback and Patriots ball at the 20, Mike Anderson got his second 1-yard rushing touchdown of the day. The review looked to clearly show the ball out of bounds in the end zone, but it was a tough call to overturn. Although Bailey never went out of bounds until he was in the end zone, and the ball was in his inside hand when it was knocked away, there just isn’t a conclusive picture.
Here is a frame by frame shot of the play (h/t to SlotMachinePlayer):
The ball clearly didn’t break the laws of physics and take a sharp left turn out of bounds at the 1. The problem is, there isn’t a perfect camera angle that shows that. You can use Bailey’s body to judge that the ball was just passing out of bounds in the end zone, but you can’t exactly tell, and so the call stood. Again, I consider it to be one of the worst calls in NFL history, but when you’re using the instant replay, I don’t know if you can cite Isaac Newton as to why it got overturned. Without a conclusive picture, they were forced to stick with the terrible call on the field.
The question I’m trying to answer is: would the Patriots have won the game if the Watson play was called correctly? They ultimately lost by 14 points, and were a complete mess the entire game. The Patriots ended the game with five turnovers, two of them happening in the last two minutes of the first half, with the Patriots up 3-0. First, Kevin Faulk fumbled at the Patriots 40, then Asante Samuel was called for a terrible pass inference penalty in the end zone on the next play.
Mike Anderson punched it in from 1-yard on the very next snap. On the ensuing kickoff, Ellis Hobbs was tackled by the kicker, Todd Sauerbrun (who ended up playing for the Patriots the following year) and fumbled, leading to a Broncos field goal. Then, with ten minutes left and the Patriots trailing by eleven points, Troy Brown muffed a punt inside the Patriots 20. Three plays later, the Broncos went up by 18, and the comeback was hopeless.
Would all of those things be different if the Watson play had been called correctly? Probably not, but, instead of an easy touchdown and an eleven-point Broncos lead, the Patriots would have had the ball, and the momentum of a great play. I think that they could’ve ended up pulling that game out. If they had, they would’ve gotten the Steelers in Foxboro the next week after Pittsburgh beat the Colts in perhaps the craziest finish to a football game ever.
Indianapolis was trailing by three with under two minutes left and had just turned the ball over on downs. The Steelers had the ball at the Colts’ 2-yard line, and they handed it off to Jerome Bettis. He fumbled, and the ball was picked up by Nick Harper. Harper had been stabbed in the leg by his wife in the week leading up to the game, and so he may have been slowed down just a bit, and he was tackled by Ben Roethlisberger, the only man standing between him and the end zone. I swear real life is crazier than fiction. If you made up the Nick Harper story everyone would call it dumb storytelling, but it was just dumb luck. Mike Vanderjagt went out and shanked the potential game-tying field goal, and the Steelers were on their way to the AFC Championship Game.
The Steelers beat the Broncos, and went on to beat the Seahawks in the Super Bowl as well. Would they have been able to go into Foxboro and beat the team that destroyed them in the playoffs the year before? They had already lost to the Patriots in New England once that year. If the Patriots were able to win that game, they would’ve been headed to their third straight Super Bowl and a very beatable Seahawks team. Tom Brady could have seven rings if one simple call had been made correctly.
So, there’s no real way to know what would’ve happened. It’s at least plausible, though, and I think it likely that the Patriots would’ve at least been heading to their third straight Super Bowl. Honestly, one of the things I hate most is that it was such an amazing play, but one that many just can’t appreciate fully because it happened during a playoff loss.
Pat is a host of The Patriot Nation Podcast
Interact with him on Twitter @plane_pats