BOSTON (CBS) -- Monday was the all-too-rare night in sports when the actual game lived up to the week's worth of hype. For 59-plus minutes, two of the better teams in the NFL went toe-to-toe, back-and-forth, building up to the dramatic climax on national TV.
And then it happened.
It, as you well know by now, was the back judge's decision to throw a flag, only for the officials to meet and then decide that no foul had indeed been made. Just like that, the game was over, and now we have days (weeks?) to discuss a major gaffe by the officials instead of talking about what a great game it was and could have been.
And make no mistake -- it was a horrific non-call, and that has been confirmed by just about everyone in the world who does not hate the Patriots and is not named Gerry Austin. Unlike the controversial penalty at the end of New England's loss to the Jets this year, the argument that the Patriots were robbed holds much more water this time. In that Jets game, the Patriots played like doo-doo for much of the day and shouldn't have been in a position to lose in overtime. But in this game, against a very good Carolina team, the game was -- as expected -- evenly matched. The Patriots did not play a perfect game, but that is to be expected against a top-tier team.
And when you're in a tight game against a very good team, you need the officials to do their job. And these officials most certainly did not.
There's not much need to dissect the play all that much. When you see a man wrap his arms around another man as the ball flies toward them, it doesn't take a PhD in football to know it was illegal. When you consider that Devin McCourty was called for a penalty on a similar play (in which the receiver did more of the wrapping up than McCourty), it's even worse.
And so the Patriots have to swallow the fact that they're now 7-3 and they have but six days to prepare for Peyton Manning and his high-flying Denver offense, which comes into Foxboro on Sunday night.
But before we get too far ahead, let's run through all the leftover thoughts from the Patriots' 24-20 loss in Carolina.
(NOTE: If you have absolutely no interest in further discussion of the officiating, you can go ahead and skip down to the photo of Robert Kraft and Jerry Richardson riding a golf cart, which is included because, well, look at it.)
--For clarity, had the officials stuck with the penalty call, the Patriots very well may still have not won the game. From the 1-yard line against that defense, I would say the Patriots had about a 50 percent chance chance of scoring the winning touchdown. Of course, 50 percent is a whole lot better than 0 percent, which is what they got, but that is a point that nevertheless should not get lost in all the outrage.
--To make such a bad mistake in the heat of the moment with 75,000 fans screaming, you can understand it to a certain extent. But for referee Clete Blakeman to come out and tell pool reporter Mike Reiss that his crew got the call right in saying this after seeing the replay is flat-out disgusting. You can read his full description here but as a warning, you may want to have a barf bag handy.
"So there was a determination that, in essence, uncatchability," Blakeman said, forgetting exactly how the English language works.
When asked if he was confident that his crew got the call correct, Blakeman said, "Yeah, in review, yeah. I think so."
That's a tremendous amount of confidence right there. Thankfully, ol' Clete isn't a surgeon. I can't imagine the horror of hearing his reply when asking how confident he is in his ability to successfully perform surgery. "Yeah, I'm confident. I think."
--I went to a presentation at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference a few years back, and a group presented its research on home-field advantage in sports. The essential finding was that a loud, rambunctious home crowd's effect on officiating is the No. 1 factor in the home team having an edge. So I looked it up, and here's what I found.
"Why do refs favor the home team? We think psychology and behavioral science give the best explanation," Tobias Moskowitz said in an interview with the New York Times. "Psychology finds that social influence is a powerful force than can have great impact on people's decision-making, even if they are unaware of it. People tend to converge their opinion toward a group's opinion both because of social pressure (the desire to fit in) and for informational reasons (the group may be better informed than the individual). Basically, we think officials are seeing the game the home team's way both because they may have a subconscious desire to relieve pressure from the yelling crowd and because they may be taking subtle cues from the crowd about what the correct call should be."
If Moskowitz needs an illustration of his point, he could do worse than looking at the end of Monday night's game.
--I have been singing this chorus for years: The word "uncatchable" left the lexicon of NFL referees many moons ago. (In fact, if you Google "uncatchable nfl officials lexicon," my stories are the only three results.) And now people want to sit here and try to debate whether a ball was catchable when it was within a five-yard radius of the 6-foot-6 man who catches everything. If we sat and debated the catchability of every pass that draws an interference penalty, we would literally never have time to feed or bathe ourselves.
(Also, if you live in the bizarre world where that pass is "uncatchable," then for one, seriously, watch every PI call in the league to get a better understanding of the fact that the only passes that are deemed "uncatchable" these days are passes that sail 10-15 yards out of bounds. And second, understand that if the pass is indeed "uncatchable," then the penalty of defensive holding still exists.)
--Most telling: The last time the Patriots had this much national support was probably 2001. The whole country has hated them since then. And even the tri-state area thinks they got hosed on Monday night.
Indiana, pick a side already, would you?
--OK, I think we're through the referee talk, it's safe to come back now if you want none of it.
--Early in the game, Jon Gruden said, "If there was a statistic for hard work behind the scenes, Brady would be leading in that category." To that I say, if there was a statistic for players who inspire color commentators to invent statistics in order to try to explain how great he is, Brady would lead in that category. Phil Simms said a couple of years ago that the Patriots lead the league in plays where they just get it done. I'll never forget that.
--There are some people who never want to blame a loss on a bad call or a missed call, and I'm almost always one of them. Obviously, 60 minutes of football isn't decided by one play. And in this game, yes, Stevan Ridley's fumble was a very costly one, and yes, the Patriots could have done better on their third-and-1 play from the Panthers' 8-yard line. Those were two missed opportunities, and if Ridley had hung on or if the Pats had picked up that yard, the shape of the game would have changed.
But to say "a bad call didn't determine the game" while pointing to those two plays is oversimplifying things. It was a football game, and the Panthers are a very good team. Neither the Patriots or Panthers succeeded with 100 percent success in the 60 minutes, and the fact is that the Patriots earned a shot to win the game from the 1-yard line.
--Most positive takeaway for the Patriots: Shane Vereen. Wow. He was reportedly going to be "eased" back into the offense. Instead, he was targeted by Tom Brady 11 times, four more than any other player. Vereen dropped a pass along the left sideline on the final drive, but he had a great game by any standard, let alone for someone who hasn't played since Week 1.
--Most negative takeaway for the Patriots: Aqib Talib's hip. He's been out since Week 6, getting more than a month to rest is hip injury, yet if you looked beyond his wrestling matches with Steve Smith, you saw a guy playing with a minor limp. Eventually, the hip issue was bad enough to force him to the sideline, and that's a frightening prospect for the Patriots' defense. I just think of last year's AFC Championship Game, when his departure due to a hamstring injury completely changed the Patriots' defense.
Without Talib, the Patriots are good enough to win in the regular season, but if this hip issue is bad enough where he won't be on the field in the playoffs, it's a killer.
--Cam Newton's scramble was simply phenomenal. People have said that was like a video game, but that's inaccurate. You cannot do those types of things even in a video game.
What Newton did defied laws of physics and rules of logic. He spun out of a would-be tackle by Rob Ninkovich before backing up a few more yards. Dont'a Hightower charged at Newton from the QB's right, while Ninkovich got up and charged from Newton's left. The QB stepped forward but then hopped backward, and looked to run left. But Chandler Jones was there, so Newton went to a semi-pump fake move, which made Jones bite inside. Newton had just enough space to run around the long arms of Jones to turn on the jets and burn up the sideline. He cut it back inside before finally getting tracked down from behind by Hightower, but not before he picked up 14 yards and moved the chains.
You do that, you earn the right to preen at midfield.
When Cam is good, he's really good.
--When the whole world was loudly fretting about Stevan Ridley's fumbling problems, I have been the one saying they were being overblown. Sadly, it's become clear that I was wrong. Very wrong.
Ridley has fumbling problems. Holding the ball so carelessly just a few plays Kuechly and Charles Johnson tried desperately to rip the ball from you shows that the kid has mental lapses where he forgets that nothing is more important than protecting the football. The frustrating part about it from a coaching standpoint is that you can see that he can focus on securing the ball, it just usually doesn't happen until after he's already coughed one up.
I've said before and I'll say again that he's the team's most explosive offensive weapon. But that weapon is useless if he can't accomplish the most important task: keep the ball.
--Because I like to corner the market on making fun of myself, here are some of my greatest hits when it comes to Ridley fumbling. This required about a three-minute Google search to compile.
"But considering the circumstances (he might not have ever possessed the football before Troy Polamalu knocked the pass out of his hands) and the rest of his performance, there won't be much worry about the running back's hands.)" -- Nov 3, 2013
"Stevan Ridley does not have fumbling issues. Or, at least, his minor fumbling issues have been greatly overblown for the past 10 months. … Ridley doesn't have that problem, and his issues are much easier to correct. There's not too much to worry about here." -- Oct. 10, 2012
"Realistically, there's not too much reason to be overly concerned about Ridley's fumbling. He coughed it up four times last year on 290 carries, averaging a lost fumble about once every 73 carries, and he lost one in the playoffs, though he looked to lose consciousness before the football. It's hard to blame him too much for that one." -- Sept. 12, 2013
"There's no need to harp on the fumble, but any time Ridley loses his grip on the ball, 'fumble watch' ensues." -- Dec. 11, 2012
"There shouldn't be too much concern over the fumbles, though. He didn't fumble often in college, and two fumbles in two weeks is more likely a fluke occurrence than a sign of things to come, especially considering he had 95 touches last season." -- July 23, 2012
--Referee Clete Blakeman thinks, in essence, I nailed it with all of those assessments.
--What an embarrassing night for Gerry Austin, though. I mean, I've noticed many times over the past two years that he has the tendency to be absolutely dead wrong on a regular basis, but it's usually on plays that are reviewed in the middle of the game and don't really have a huge impact. Austin is wrong, the officials on the field and in the booth get it right, and the game goes on. But in this one, Austin had to be wrong for about a full half-hour on the postgame, with Jon Gruden arguing with him in the booth and making a mockery of his "expertise." Meanwhile, former NFL officials supervisor Jim Daopoulos was crushing the officials for screwing it up, and former head of officiating Mike Pereira (who neeevvvvvver criticizes officials, unless they're replacements) said that Blakeman and his crew screwed it up. Embarrassing evening indeed for Austin.
--It was a banner weekend all around for officials, come to think of it. Trent Williams said that an official swore at him and insulted him during the Redskins' loss on Sunday, and questionable penalty on San Francisco for hitting Drew Brees afforded the Saints the opportunity to win later in the day. And now, this.
--Tavon Wilson's tackle of Ted Ginn on a kickoff was amazing. He went full-on torso torpedo for that one, pile-driving Ginn into the turf.
--Tom Brady's throws are accurate, and he looks to have no issues throwing the football, so I'm not one to sound the alarms on the hand injury. But when he gave high fives using his elbow instead of his hand? He might have an issue on his hands (pun INTENDED!). (Video of the elbow-fives here.)
--There were two instances on Monday night where Rob Gronkowski lay on the ground, surrounded by four exhausted opponents. The man is superhuman. It's scary.
But, uh, yeah ... no way he makes that catch in the end zone.
--The "defenseless receiver" idea is truly the dumbest in sports. You absolutely cannot launch into a helmet-to-helmet hit on a player ... unless he has the ball. Then it's time to tee it up, brother!
--Ryan Allen bobbled the snap on Stephen Gostkowski's field goal, which is a dangerous thing to do. However, he and Gostkowski were able to just barely pull off the successful kick, and then the rookie punter got several seconds of face time on Monday Night Football. All in all, a win-win for Allen.
--The other bit of controversy came after Ginn scored the go-ahead touchdown, when three seconds ticked off the clock after he crossed the goal line. That time never got put back on the clock, and it gave Brady and Co. less time on the potential game-winning drive. (Video here.) It's impossible to try to project how -- if at all -- those seconds would have changed that final drive, but it was nevertheless fishy.
--For two of three Patriots losses this year, the main talking points coming out of the games have been the officials. That's fun. That's definitely why we watch sports. We love the officials.
But at the same time, this random Twitter account made a pretty good point.
There wasn't much whining around these parts after Nate Solder got away with a pretty blatant hold on that game-winning touchdown to Kenbrell Thompkins. So I guess we can call it even?
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