The conference championship games included one thrilling ending, two worthy winners and many great performances. And there must have been relief in some quarters that one thing was mostly missing: disputed or outright blown calls by the officials.
Week after week this season, fans, coaches and players have been riled by calls that were questionable, erroneous or flat-out weird. In many cases, the NFL, through Dean Blandino, the vice president for officiating, or spokesman Michael Signora, admitted later that referees had made a mistake. Often that was of little consolation to the teams that suffered.
Here are 10 of the more contentious calls of the season.
The Coin That Didn’t Flip
Jan. 17, divisional playoff, Packers at Arizona Cardinals
Amid the intense complexities of the NFL, there is the simplicity of the coin toss. Heads or tails? The coin goes up, the coin goes down. Someone wins, and we move on.
But the simplest of operations grew surprisingly contentious when the Packers called tails at the start of overtime, and the large, heavy, ceremonial coin landed on heads without ever having flipped in the air, causing yelps of complaint from the Packers.
Referee Clete Blakeman agreed to toss the coin again, and a more severe incident was avoided when it landed on heads again. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said he had wanted to switch to heads for the second toss but was not allowed to. The Cardinals elected to receive and marched down the field for a touchdown and a win.
“The referee used his judgment to determine that basic fairness dictated that the coin should flip for the toss to be valid,” Signora told The Associated Press.
In the irony department, Blakeman will be the referee at the Super Bowl.
Two Combatants Stay in the Game
Dec. 20, Carolina Panthers at Giants
Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and Panthers cornerback Josh Norman sparred repeatedly during the game, including late hits, shoving, tripping and face mask grabbing. In the most egregious incident, Beckham launched himself at Norman and hit him helmet-to-helmet.
Beckham drew three unnecessary-roughness penalties, and Norman two, but neither player was ejected. Beckham wound up being suspended for a game for his actions, and Norman was fined.
“I think when you look at of the actions in their entirety it does warrant an ejection,” Blandino told NFL Network. “It’s certainly an accumulation of instances and not just on Beckham. There was some things on the other side, too, and I think both parties were involved.”
A Disputed Face Mask
Dec. 3, Green Bay Packers at Lions
The clock expired after a desperation play by the Packers involving a completion and two laterals ended when quarterback Aaron Rodgers was brought down by Devin Taylor. The Lions had seemingly upset Green Bay.
But Taylor was called for a face mask on Rodgers. Replays showed contact between thumb and the mask, though Taylor did not seem to grab hold of it. Lions players and fans were upset. Blandino defended the call, saying an official would make it “almost every time.”
The Packers took advantage of the one more untimed play they were awarded, and Aaron Rodgers threw the ball 61 yards to Richard Rodgers for the winning score.
Stop That Clock II
Nov. 23 Buffalo Bills at Patriots
Trailing by 7 with time running out, Tyrod Taylor of the Bills hit Sammy Watkins on the sidelines. After making the catch, Watkins fell over and rolled out of bounds, apparently stopping the clock with 2 seconds left. Time for one more play from midfield? Nope. An official ruled that Watkins was down in bounds and ruled that the clock should keep running. Game over.
Blandino later said the call was wrong. Since Watkins was never touched, he was not down, and the clock should have stopped when he got out of bounds.
In the same game, a side judge blew his whistle inadvertently, perhaps distracted by Bills coach Rex Ryan walking in front of him. Danny Amendola of the Patriots had caught a pass and seemed to have open field in front of him, but the officials ruled the play would be ended at the point of the catch.
The Missed False Start
Nov. 15, Jacksonville Jaguars at Ravens
With the Jaguars down a point with only seconds to play, Elvis Dumervil of the Ravens was called for a 15-yard face mask penalty. The yardage put the Jags in position for a game-winning 53-yard field goal, which they made.
But they never should have had the chance to kick it. The officials missed that the Jags offense was not set properly on the play. “The correct call in this case would have been to penalize the offense for a false start because all 11 players were not set, and whistle to stop the play,” Signora told The Baltimore Sun. “The ensuing 10-second runoff should have ended the game.”
With the Ravens as the winners.
Beckham’s (Non) Catch
Nov. 15, New England Patriots at New York Giants
When Beckham apparently caught a touchdown pass with 2 minutes to play, it seemed the Giants has taken a 5-point lead. Beckham had both feet inbounds, but New England cornerback Malcolm Butler then knocked the ball from his hands.
The call on the field was touchdown, but after a video review, it was changed to an incomplete pass. The Giants settled for a field goal and a 2-point lead, only to lose the game when the Patriots kicked a field goal of their own.
“Just looking at it, it’s kind of the way the rule is now – you have to make a football move, especially in the end zone,” Eli Manning acknowledged. “You have to have it the whole time.”
The Distracted Ref
Oct. 26, Ravens at Arizona Cardinals
On the Ravens’ opening drive, guard John Urschel caught a pass to bring the team down to the Arizona 7. But officials ruled he had not reported as an eligible receiver, and they called an illegal formation.
Blandino acknowledged later that Urschel had reported properly, and said that referee Ronald Torbert had been distracted because he was announcing a correction to a foul on the previous play.
Stop That Clock
Oct. 12, Pittsburgh Steelers at San Diego Chargers
After San Diego took a 20-17 lead with 2:56 left, the kickoff was out of the end zone for a touchback, and the clock should not have started. But it did, and Pittsburgh lost 18 seconds of potentially crucial time.
Signora blamed “an error by the clock operator” and said “it is the responsibility of the side judge to supervise the timing of the game.”
Luckily for the Steelers, 2:38 turned out to be enough time for Michael Vick to lead the team to a touchdown and win the game on the final play from scrimmage.
Oct. 5, Detroit Lions at Seattle Seahawks
With less than 2 minutes to go and Detroit trailing by 3, Matthew Stafford hit Calvin Johnson, who seemed headed for a go-ahead touchdown. But just before he crossed the goal line, Kam Chancellor made an athletic lunge and knocked the ball away.
As it bounced through the end zone, almost certain to go out the back, K.J. Wright of Seattle helped it on its way by batting it.
A touchback was called. But Wright and the Seahawks should have been penalized, the league later said. “You can’t bat the ball in any direction in the end zone,” Blandino told NFL Network. “That is a foul.”
Had that ruling been made, Blandino said, a half-the-distance penalty would have been assessed at the point of the fumble, leaving Detroit inches from the goal line. Instead, Seattle ran out the clock and won the game.
Sept. 27, Cincinnati Bengals at Baltimore Ravens
Tyler Eifert’s touchdown catch on fourth-and-1 seemed to give Cincinnati a 20-0 lead. But Eifert lost the ball as he landed in the end zone, and after a review, the catch was ruled incomplete. Unlike some of the disputed calls this season, the NFL defended this one.
“He has to maintain control all the way to the ground,” Blandino said. “When you’re going to the ground, you have to hold on to it regardless of any reach.”
Eifert unsurprisingly disagreed. “I don’t know if anybody really knows what the right call is,” he told ESPN. “I had thought once you break the plane the play’s over.”