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Controversial Fumble Call Dominates Postgame Discussion From Patriots' Win Over Jets

By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston

BOSTON (CBS) -- The Patriots went on the road and won a tight game against the Jets. But that's not going to be the talking point around the NFL after this one.

Instead, the national football debate will center around a controversial call that wiped away a would-be Jets touchdown and gave the football to the Patriots in a 10-point game in the fourth quarter.

Despite the swirling controversy, the rule enforced is actually quite simple. If a runner fumbles the football, he must regain possession and establish that possession before being out of bounds. If he doesn't regain possession before falling out of bounds in the end zone and maintain possession, then he has essentially fumbled out of bounds in the end zone. And a fumble out of bounds in the end zone goes down as a touchback, meaning the defense gets the ball. It's a turnover.

On this play in question, tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins was being tackled by Patriots safety Duron Harmon when cornerback Malcolm Butler came into the picture and knocked the ball loose from Seferian-Jenkins' grasp just before he crossed the plane of the goal line.

Austin Seferian-Jenkins
Malcolm Butler and Duron Harmon rip the ball from Austin Seferian-Jenkins. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

Seferian-Jenkins did get a hold of the ball again, but he didn't get any body parts down in the field of play before he landed out of bounds.

The call on the field was a touchdown. But after a replay review, referee Tony Corrente announced that the New York replay office had ruled that Seferian-Jenkins never regained possession in the field of play. Ergo, it was Patriots ball at their own 20-yard line, and there was no Jets touchdown.

Butler told reporters that he punched at the ball and saw that it was loose, before informing the official on the field.

"[The official] said it was going to be reviewed, and it turned out right," Butler said.

When asked for his confidence that the call on the field would be overturned, Butler didn't answer.

"I mean, we got the call, so that's all that matters," he said.

And when asked for this thoughts on the rule that states such fumbles result in turnovers and touchbacks?

"Good rule," he said. "I love that."

Referee Tony Corrente explained the process that went into the call being overturned.

"He lost the ball. It came out of his control as he was almost to the ground," Corrente said. "Now he re-grasps the ball and by rule, now he has to complete the process of recovery, which means he has to survive the ground again. So in recovering it, he recovered, hit the knee, started to roll and the ball came out a second time. So the ball started to move in his hands this way ... he's now out of bounds in the end zone, which now created a touchback. So he didn't survive the recovery and didn't survive the ground during the recovery is what happened here."

He added: "When the other [replay angle] came up, it was just 'boom, boom, boom.' It was a pretty quick determination. It was pretty obvious."

Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said that Butler was adamant that the ball was loose when Seferian-Jenkins fell into the end zone.

"The fumble -- that was an interesting play," Belichick said. "But when Malcolm came off the field, the first thing he told me is that the ball was out. I thought they were reviewing whether he had crossed the goal line or not, but Malcolm obviously had a real good look at it and was sure it was out. It was the first thing he told me. So that was the ruling, and that's why ball possession is so important down there. We had a close one in the New Orleans game that barely went our way but it was the same kind of thing, bang-bang play right there on the goal line. So it was a good job of turning the ball over on that one."

The Jets, as one might imagine, had a different reaction.

"I'm pretty sure everybody's going to look back and say that was a B.S. call," receiver Jermaine Kearse said, according to Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News.

Despite losing by seven points, Jets head coach Todd Bowles didn't point at the call as the reason his team lost.

"We had other plays in the game that we could have made to make up for that," he said. "I'm not gonna blame this game on one play."

However, Bowles said he did not see a fumble.

"From my angle on replay, I didn't see the ball fumbled," Bowles said. "I saw it bobble and I saw him gain control of it, and go from there."

Austin Seferian-Jenkins
Austin Seferian-Jenkins loses control of the ball before crossing the plane of the goal line against the Patriots. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

"What they called was the furthest thing from my mind," veteran cornerback Morris Claiborne said.

Belichick said a play like that from Butler is nothing new.

"He did a great job getting his hand in," Belichick said of Butler. "He has a great knack for that, he's done that before. He has good ball awareness and does a good job of slapping at the ball. He's gotten those balls out before. It was a tremendous play, great awareness and saved us seven points."

The coach also was asked if players practice those types of situational plays, where a goal-line turnover can change a game.

"Absolutely," Belichick said. "Absolutely. Yup."

Patriots defensive captain Devin McCourty said he felt the call might go the Patriots' way but didn't necessarily expect to get the overturn.

"We knew it was close once they threw it up on the big screen," McCourty said. "You can see the ball get juggled a little bit. But it always comes down to how they see it. Is it enough evidence, is it not enough? We felt that the ball was juggled a little bit, but I didn't know which way it was going to go. Obviously as a defense, we'll take that any day."

Considering the Jets lost the game by exactly seven points -- and because the rule was not properly understood by the broadcast crew calling the game -- this overturn will be looked at as arguably the single biggest reason the Patriots won the game.

However, as many people who understand the minutiae of NFL rules expected, the call was made properly with regard to the rules in place. An argument can be made that that level of "fumble" or "loss of possession" is not in line with the spirit of the rule, but it can't be debated whether the rule exists or whether it was enforced properly.

You can email Michael Hurley or find him on Twitter @michaelFhurley.

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