A historic drop in penalty flags helped lessen the spotlight on NFL officiating in 2020. So did the abolition of replay review for pass interference. But the arrival of postseason football has raised scrutiny on every questionable call, rule interpretation and review.
No worries. We’re here for you. What follows is a real-time breakdown of the calls you shook your heads at, screamed at the television for or were otherwise confused by during the wild-card round. The most recent plays are at the top,.
Confusion on punt at end of first half of Ravens-Titans
Ravens-Titans wild-card game, 0:11 remaining in the second quarter
What happened: The Ravens’ Sam Koch kicked a 43-yard punt on fourth-and-31. But referee Jerome Boger announced a defensive holding call and signaled for a first down.
How it was resolved: Boger made a total of three announcements to clarify that it was the Ravens who would get the first down, and that the foul was against Titans linebacker Daren Bates. The Ravens’ offense returned to the field, and quarterback Lamar Jackson took a knee to end the half.
Analysis: Shortly after the snap, Bates grabbed Ravens long snapper Morgan Cox and pulled him to the ground in a technique that teams sometimes employ to create a lane for another player to rush through. It was clearly a defensive hold, and because it happened before the kick, it was adjudicated the same way it would have been if the offense and defense were on the field. That meant the Titans lost five yards and the Ravens were awarded an automatic first down.
It took a while for Boger to sort through it all, and there also seemed to have been an uncalled hold against Ravens upback Anthony Levine Jr. Ultimately, though, there was no disputing Boger’s application of the rules.
No call on A.J. Brown for offensive pass interference
Ravens-Titans wild-card game, 5:39 remaining in the first quarter
What happened: The Titans were credited with a 10-yard touchdown pass from Ryan Tannehill to Brown, who seemed to push Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey away from him as the ball arrived in the end zone.
How it was resolved: The touchdown stood. Potential interference from a receiver or a defender is no longer reviewable.
Analysis: Pass interference is among the most subjective judgment calls in football, as we learned in 2019 when the NFL tried unsuccessfully to adjudicate it through replay. The NFL rulebook defines it as an instance where one player “significantly hinders” another from an opportunity to catch the ball. In practical terms, officiating analyst John Parry said on the ABC/ESPN broadcast, officials look for whether one player gains an “advantage” through a prohibited action.
THE BOY! 😎 #BALvsTEN
— Tennessee Titans (@Titans) January 10, 2021
In this case, Brown clearly had an easier catch after pushing Humphrey away with his left arm. So this play clearly fit the definition, both officially and practically. But it should be noted that NFL officials were pretty stingy on offensive pass interference this season. They threw flags 72 flags for it in 2020, the fewest total since 2007 and third fewest since 2001. This season’s total represented a 40% drop from 2019, when there were 122 such flags.
Washington punt declared a touchback
Bucs-Washington wild-card game, 9:02 remaining in the third quarter
What happened: The Buccaneers were awarded a touchback after Washington’s Troy Apke picked up a Washington punt near the 7-yard line and — presumably believing it had been touched by a Buccaneers player — ran it into the end zone.
How it was resolved: The play remained a touchback.
Analysis: The ball should have been marked where Apke first gained possession, and not a touchback. By rule, a kick that goes past the line of scrimmage is dead as soon as a member of the kicking team downs it. The ball can’t be advanced. There are many judgment calls over the course of a game that can be debated. This one was a matter of rule application. Washington should have been able to pin the Buccaneers deeper than it did.
Rams RB Cam Akers‘ fumble reversed
Rams-Seahawks wild-card game, 46 seconds remaining in first half
What happened: Officials ruled that Seahawks defensive end Carlos Dunlap stripped the ball from Akers after a 3-yard run. The fumble recovery was credited to Seahawks cornerback Ryan Neal, giving Seattle the ball at the Rams’ 26-yard line.
How it was resolved: The call was reversed in replay review. The NFL ruled Akers was down by contact before he fumbled, and the Rams retained possession.
Analysis: The league eventually got the play right, but like several other calls we’ve seen during the course of wild-card weekend, it was hard to believe that NFL-caliber officials would see this play as a fumble. Akers was laying on his back, with the ball tucked tightly in his arm, when Dunlap first attempted to strip the ball. At least one official initially ruled Akers down, but he was overruled. It’s always possible that views were blocked, and sometimes if they’re in doubt, officials rule a turnover to ensure it can be adjudicated correctly in replay via automatic review.
But in this case, replay could have reviewed the play regardless because there were less than two minutes remaining. It was the kind of decision that erodes confidence in the overall competence of the enterprise.
Officials pick up flag on hit to Rams QB’s head
Rams-Seahawks wild-card game, 5:40 remaining in first quarter
What happened: As Rams quarterback John Wolford dove to the ground after a two-yard run, Seahawks safety Jamal Adams lowered his right shoulder and hit Wolford in the head. Officials initially threw a flag against Adams. Wolford left the game and was replaced by Jared Goff.
How it was resolved: Referee John Hussey announced there would be no penalty because Wolford was considered a runner and thus wasn’t subject to protections normally afforded to quarterbacks.
Analysis: It’s true that Wolford wouldn’t get quarterback protection on that play, but what happened next prompted differing takes from broadcast officiating analysts. Fox Sports’ Mike Pereira and NBC’s Terry McAulay both suggested that the hit was illegal because Wolford was giving himself up and therefore a defenseless player. But the NFL rule book does not account for that specific situation. ESPN’s John Parry tweeted: “QB – head first is runner – shoulder to helmet is not a foul by rule.” Bottom line, the entire sequence was debatable.
It’s the second consecutive season the Seahawks have knocked a starting quarterback out of a playoff game with a hit to the head. In the previous case, Jadeveon Clowney’s hit on Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz was considered incidental and not forcible. Wolford, meanwhile, was taken to the hospital for precautionary measures, according to a Rams spokesperson.
How was that not a fumble by the Colts?
Colts-Bills wild-card game, 50 seconds remaining in fourth quarter
What happened: On fourth-and-10 on the Colts’ final possession of the game, receiver Zach Pascal was credited with a 17-yard catch and fell at the Bills’ 46-yard line. Pascal got up and fumbled, which was recovered by the Bills in what would have been a game-clinching play. Officials on the field, however, ruled that Pascal was down by contact after initially falling.
How it was resolved: Bills coach Sean McDermott called a timeout as the Colts hurried to the line of scrimmage, but he could not challenge because there was less than 2 minutes remaining in the game. During the timeout, NFL senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron reviewed the call. It was not immediately clear if his review stopped the game, or if it was McDermott’s timeout. Regardless, referee Brad Allen announced that the call would stand with no further explanation.
Analysis: The NFL said on Twitter that there was no clear and obvious evidence available to overturn the ruling, and there was no pool report requested in Buffalo to further explain. Because replays seemed to confirm that Pascal was not contacted before he got up, and that he was not down when he lost possession of the ball. We’ll update this post if the NFL or Riveron offers any further explanation. But by all available evidence at the moment, the Bills should have been given possession. Had the Colts come back to tie or win the game — the Bills won 27-24 — this decision would have been heavily scrutinized.
— NFL Officiating (@NFLOfficiating) January 9, 2021
Clock runs after fumble out of bounds
Colts-Bills wild-card game, 26 seconds remaining in fourth quarter
What happened: The game clock continued running after Colts receiver Michael Pittman Jr. fumbled out of bounds.
How it was resolved: The clock was not stopped.
Analysis: This play caused a fair bit of uproar on social media, but it was appropriate game administration. A fumble out of bounds is not the same as a player going out of bounds. According the NFL rule book: “If a fumble or backward pass by any player goes out of bounds, the game clock starts on the referee’s signal that a ball has been returned to the field of play.”
Bills credited with two sideline catches
Colts-Bills wild-card game, under 2 minutes, second quarter
What happened: Bills receiver Gabriel Davis was credited with sideline receptions of 37 and 19 yards. In both cases, frame-by-frame replays showed he might not have gotten both feet down in bounds.
How it was resolved: Because there were less than 2 minutes remaining, the NFL’s replay official instituted reviews of both plays. In each case, referee Brad Allen announced only that the original call stood. Allen did not explain why there was an official’s hat on the ground as Davis made the first catch; often that means a player or players has run out of bounds and is no longer an eligible receiver.
— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) January 9, 2021
Analysis: You could make a frame-by-frame judgment that Davis’ left foot touched the white part of the sideline after the first catch. The same goes for the second reception, where he might not have fully executed a toe drag before stepping out of bounds. But the NFL’s replay system requires a much higher standard than “might.” It must be “clear and obvious,” preferably in live-speed action, that Davis had stepped out of bounds before gaining possession. Had the on-field ruling been incomplete, the review system likely would have upheld that as well.