Sean Payton’s clock management, not the missed penalty, cost the Saints a win
Sean Payton didn’t hold back during his postgame press conference.
“It was simple — they blew the call,” Payton said following the Saints’ 26-23 overtime loss to the Rams in the NFC Championship game. “First thing Al [Riveron] said when I got on the phone, ‘We messed it up.’ ”
Payton’s anger was justified. But it was also the perfect diversionary tactic. While the New Orleans Times-Picayune went with the headline “Reffing unbelievable,” and fans and media complained about another blown call by the officials, the reality is that Payton’s horrible clock management, and not the officiating, was mostly to blame for the Saints’ loss.
The crucial play in the Rams’ win is where we begin our Championship Weekend review:
■ The play in question was a non-call for pass interference on the Rams with 1:45 left in the fourth quarter. Cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman committed two clear fouls on the play: He hit Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis well before the ball arrived, and hit Lewis helmet-to-helmet. But the officials didn’t throw a flag, the Saints had to settle for a field goal, and they eventually lost in overtime.
Payton was irate after the game.
The league office “said not only was it interference, it was helmet-to-helmet. There was two calls. They just couldn’t believe it,” Payton said. “How two guys can look at that and come up with their decision . . . we’ll probably never get over it.”
Payton should be upset. The officials missed a fairly obvious call, one that would have given the Saints a first down and the chance to run down the clock and kick the game-winning field goal at the end of regulation.
“Yes, I got there too early,” Robey-Coleman acknowledged. “I was beat, and I was trying to save the touchdown.”
But it is far too easy and convenient to blame the officials. They make bad calls in every game. There were several questionable-to-terrible calls in the Patriots-Chiefs game. It happens.
Payton’s whining obscures the fact that it was his horrible clock management that was the real reason for the loss.
With the game tied, 20-20, the Saints had first and 10 on the Rams’ 13-yard line with 1:58 left, and the Rams holding two timeouts. All the Saints had to do was run the ball three times.
One run would burn the clock down to about 1:52, and would force the Rams to use one timeout. A second run would get the clock down to about 1:45 and force the Rams to use their final timeout. A third run would get it down to about one minute, and a field goal would then have given the Saints a 23-20 lead with about 55 seconds left, and the Rams out of timeouts.
Instead, here is how the Saints’ sequence went:
Incomplete pass on first down, stopping the clock at 1:55 and allowing the Rams to hold onto their timeouts.
Run on second down, and the Rams call time out with 1:49 left.
Another pass on third and 10, the non-penalty that fell incomplete and stopped the clock again at 1:45.
The Saints then kicked the go-ahead field goal, but the Rams got the ball back with 1:41 left.
The Saints could have given the Rams the ball back with less than a minute left and no timeouts. Instead, they gave them 1:41 and one timeout.
So Payton can blame the officials all he wants. The reality is his poor clock management played just as big of a role in the loss, if not a bigger one.
■ Meanwhile, the non-call has sparked outrage among fans and media. Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio railed on the NFL for not using instant replay to fix obvious officiating errors. NBC’s Peter King wondered if Riveron, the league’s vice president of officiating, will get fired for this mess. The Washington Post reported that the NFL will look into making instant replay a part of the penalty process this offseason.
But let’s take a deep breath and calm down for a minute. Yes, it was a horrible non-call. Yes, one of the officials (probably the back judge or the side judge) should have thrown the flag. Yes, the NFL’s decision to use “all-star” crews instead of regular-season crews leads to poor communication among the officials. Yes, whoever blew the call deserves to be reprimanded, or fined, or demoted, or fired, or whatever punishment the NFL deems fit.
But that doesn’t mean it’s time to overhaul the entire system. Using instant replay to search for potential penalties on any given play sounds like an utter disaster. It also sounds like four-hour football games.
And blaming Riveron seems reactionary at best. The NFL rules don’t allow him to call penalties from the replay room in New York. Do we really want Riveron going renegade in the playoffs just because a lot of people think it’s the right thing to do? I know I don’t. The NFL needs less Riveron, not more.
The officials are human and will make mistakes, especially in real time, without the benefit of instant replay. The Robey-Coleman hit was hardly the only bad call Sunday. The Patriots benefited from a horrible roughing-the-passer penalty against the Chiefs. The Chiefs benefited from a horrible non-call for offensive pass interference on a deep pass to Sammy Watkins that caused Bill Belichick to smash his tablet. There were several other questionable calls in that game.
But the bad calls tend to even out over time. And the officials still get 95 percent of the calls right.
The answer is just to demand more accountability from the officials, and to punish them appropriately when necessary. Because having games officiated by humans is better than entrusting it with robots and computers and Riveron making calls from a dark room in New York.
■ And let’s give the Rams some credit here. They overcame a 13-0 deficit. They did it at the Superdome, one of the loudest and toughest road venues in the NFL. They did it with a fake punt from their own 30-yard line early in the second quarter. They did it by driving 45 yards at the end of regulation without a timeout. And they did it by nailing a 57-yard field goal in overtime, which, if missed, would have given the Saints the ball at midfield.
Greg Zuerlein’s 57-yarder was the longest overtime field goal in postseason history, and the first one over 49 yards.
“It’s surreal,” Rams coach Sean McVay said. “I think the overtime period personifies what this team is all about. You’re so happy for these players. And I have a real big headache right now from yelling all day today.”
■ An underrated NFL curse: The Curse of Being the No. 1 Scoring Offense. No team that scored the most points during the regular season has won a Super Bowl since the 2009 Saints. And that streak will continue with the Chiefs’ loss.
The Curse of Being Named MVP will almost certainly continue this year as well. No league MVP has won the Super Bowl in the same season since Kurt Warner in 1999, and Patrick Mahomes is the presumed favorite to win the award. Tom Brady fell victim to this curse last year.
■ This year marked the first time in NFL history that both championship games went to overtime. It marked the first time since the 2012 season that a road team won (home teams had won 10 straight). And it marked just the fourth time in NFL history that both road teams won the championship games.
In 2012, the 49ers won in Atlanta and the Ravens won in New England. In 1997, the Packers won in San Francisco, and the Broncos won in Pittsburgh. And in 1992, the Cowboys won at San Francisco, and the Bills won in Miami.
Home teams are now 66-32 (.673) in the championship games.
■ The Patriots’ win over the Chiefs wasn’t an exact parallel to the Super Bowl LI win over the Falcons, but it felt a lot like it:
Both games featured the Patriots with their backs against the wall — down, 28-3, to the Falcons, and on the road in a hostile Arrowhead Stadium, braving the cold and facing two separate deficits in the fourth quarter.
Both games featured a frenetic fourth quarter. In the Super Bowl, the Patriots scored 19 points, including two 2-point conversions. Sunday, the teams combined for 38 points — 14 by the Patriots, 24 by the Chiefs. The fourth quarter produced five lead changes.
In both games, the Patriots marched right down the field on the opening possession of overtime, and won with a touchdown without letting the other team touch the ball. And both game-winning scores were by unheralded running backs: James White and Rex Burkhead.
The Patriots dominated time of possession in both games. Against the Falcons, the Patriots held the ball for 40:31 and ran 99 offensive snaps (including penalties), while the Falcons had just 49 snaps. Against the Chiefs, the Patriots held the ball for 43:59 and ran 97 snaps, while the Chiefs ran just 52.
■ Some noteworthy personnel usage by the Patriots in the game:
1. Most impressively, Rob Gronkowski played all 97 snaps. He had a season-high 11 targets, and finished with six catches for 79 yards, including a 15-yarder on third and 10 to set up the game-winning score in overtime. For a guy who has battled injuries for much of the year and hasn’t looked like himself, Gronk was a beast.
2. The second was fullback James Develin, who played 41 snaps and played an important role in helping the Patriots win the line of scrimmage and play keep-away from Mahomes. With most of the NFL trending toward a three-receiver, shotgun spread offense, the Patriots use a fullback 41 times to smash you back into the Stone Age.
3. And the Patriots gave safety Duron Harmon a night off, while using their rarely utilized four-cornerback dime defense for most of the night. Harmon played just two snaps, while Jonathan Jones emerged from the bowels of the depth chart to play 41 of 52 snaps. Stephon Gilmore played all 52, J.C. Jackson played 51, and Jason McCourty played 35.
Mahomes said the Patriots played more man defense against them than they had seen all season.
“They challenged us,” Mahomes said. “They came up and played man. Not a lot of teams have this year. They put people in our face to see how we responded. The first half, we struggled. We couldn’t make anything happen. The second half, I feel like our guys took the challenge and [the Patriots] were doing the same things and we were just winning.”
■ The Patriots went back to their old reliable strategy to slow down Tyreek Hill, who had just one catch for 42 yards. They used Gilmore, their No. 1 cornerback, on an island with Sammy Watkins, and put Jones, their fastest cornerback, on Hill, with safety help over the top.
“Yeah, they doubled him on like 95 percent of the plays,” Mahomes said of Hill.
■ On the play he was flagged for offsides, Chiefs outside linebacker Dee Ford lined up with his hand on the imaginary blue line, and his helmet possibly hovering over the line, as well. If he moves back 6 inches, the Chiefs probably go to the Super Bowl. But he was flagged for offsides, Tom Brady’s interception was nullified, and the rest is history.
■ For the last month-plus, the “Miami Miracle” has loomed large. It cost the Patriots a precious win, and cost them home-field advantage in the playoffs. The Patriots were only 3-5 on the road this year, and hadn’t won a championship game on the road in more than a decade. If they didn’t make the Super Bowl, the Miami Miracle would be a big reason for it.
Well, now it’s official: The Miami Miracle didn’t matter. The Patriots overcame it, and earned a hard-fought win on the road in the AFC Championship game.