Sacramento’s Mike Pereira, a former NFL referee and head of NFL referees, is a rules analyst for Fox Sports. He’s writing a weekly column for The Sacramento Bee during the postseason.
From my vantage point in Atlanta, Sunday’s NFL conference championship games were all about the Falcons and Patriots – and, oh yes, Charles Barkley.
The weekend started Friday night with a dinner hosted by Fox Sports for Sunday’s pregame crew – Terry Bradshaw, Howie Long, Michael Strahan and Jimmy Johnson – and the game crew – Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Erin Andrews and Chris Myers. Not a regular among either group, I wasn’t sure where I fit in.
Since I work in the Fox Studios in Los Angeles during the regular season and feel part of the pregame set, I sat with some of the production crew from both groups.
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The evening’s highlight was Johnson’s rousing talk – after a Heineken or two – about why Fox does the NFL better than any other network. He talked about being better than good. He talked about being great. It was as if he were a coach again and we were his team, and he was motivating us to play our butts off Sunday. It was fantastic!
One officiating question arose when New England quarterback Tom Brady fumbled and the officials ruled the Patriots retained possession. Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin’s challenge was unsuccessful because video replay did not show a clear recovery of the ball before it disappeared into the pile of players battling for possession.
Jimmy should have given that speech to the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Neither team played great and, frankly, never approached being good. Two games, two blowouts. This was not what we expected from conference championship teams.
The NFC championship game was effectively decided with 11 minutes to play in the second quarter. With the Falcons leading 10-0, Packers fullback Aaron Ripkowski fumbled inside Atlanta’s 10-yard line. The ball was recovered by Atlanta cornerback Jalen Collins inside the 1, where officials ruled his momentum carried him into the end zone for a touchback. From there, the Falcons drove to the Packers’ 14-yard line, where quarterback Matt Ryan scored on a keeper to give Atlanta a 17-0 lead. Game over.
Social media erupted with posts claiming Collins’ roll into the end zone should have resulted in a safety. That was not the case. The rule states if a defensive player secures possession of a loose ball in the field of play and his original momentum takes him into his own end zone, where the ball is declared dead, it is not a safety and the defense gets the ball at the spot it recovered the ball.
Every turnover is automatically reviewed, and so was Ripkowski’s fumble. The replay official believed Collins didn’t control the ball until it was in the end zone. Senior vice president of officiating Dean Blandino felt Collins had a foot in the end zone when he recovered the ball, thus making the recovery in the end zone. I thought the momentum rule would be enforced. In the end, it didn’t matter. It was not a safety. Still, it would have been nice to go on the air to explain it at the time. There were no other officiating issues in the NFC game.
Officials also had no impact in the AFC championship game. The Patriots dominated from the start, and I loved the first half from an officiating standpoint – no penalties. Only five penalties were called.
One officiating question arose when New England quarterback Tom Brady fumbled and the officials ruled the Patriots retained possession. Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin’s challenge was unsuccessful because video replay did not show a clear recovery of the ball before it disappeared into the pile of players battling for possession. Who comes out of the pile holding the ball makes no difference. Therefore, the ruling on the field stands. Again, the call didn’t really matter.
Despite two blowouts, Sunday wasn’t a total wash, thanks to Charles Barkley.
While watching the AFC game on TV in a meeting room at the Atlanta hotel where the Fox crew was staying, Chris Myers brought his good friend Charles to join us. Barkley, like the rest of us, had had a couple of NFC postgame cocktails. Unlike the rest of us, he had bet on the Packers and the Steelers. With the Patriots dominating, he kept saying he was 0 for 2, and he was hilarious.
He kept telling me officials are judged unfairly. He said it is unfair to judge on-field officials who don’t have the luxury of making tough calls without the help of slow-motion replay. Speaking of slow motion, I asked him about his golf swing. He said any good golf instructor tells you to pause at the top of your swing. That is true. The only problem is Charles pauses on the way down, too. Barkley is outspoken, honest and fun to be around.
So, it’s time to start thinking about Super Bowl LI, which will be refereed by Carl Cheffers, an NFL official who wears No. 51. I wonder if that coincidence is a first.