FOXBOROUGH — With 13:22 remaining in the fourth quarter, N’Keal Harry went in motion and caught a short pass from Tom Brady. He came around the edge and took two steps down the left sideline, launched himself forward and extended his arms and the football.
According to referee Jerome Boger, whose crew officiated the Patriots’ loss to the Chiefs Sunday at Gillette Stadium, the sightline of the covering official on the wing was blocked from seeing the play by defenders. The downfield official on the goal line thought he saw Harry go out of bounds at the 3-yard line. They got together, the side judge said he didn’t see it, the back judge said out of bounds at the 3. So . . .
“The final ruling was that he was out of bounds at the 3-yard line,” Boger said, via a pool report.
Here’s why we’re talking about this:
“We all knew it was a touchdown,” Harry said. “Everybody clearly saw it was a touchdown.”
On replay, Harry did not step out of bounds. There was green grass visible between his cleat and the sideline on each step he took before reaching the ball across the plane into the end zone. These replays, however, were destined only to be played on a loop on the Gillette Stadium big screen during a later timeout, for a crowd of fans chanting unprintable things about the officiating, since the Patriots were out of challenges.
Scoring plays are reviewed, but Boger said there was no thought given to erring on the side of calling it a touchdown to get the benefit of a review because, of the two officials covering the play, the one who saw it thought Harry was short and therefore ruled in line with what he saw.
The Patriots wound up settling for a field goal on that drive. They ultimately lost by 7 points, 23-16.
“I just feel empty,” said safety Duron Harmon. “Obviously, we played a good team and we had a chance to win and we didn’t win. I’m not going to sit here and just blame the refs. The Chiefs probably feel there were some calls that could have went their way that didn’t go their way. But at the end of the day, man, when you’ve had two touchdowns taken away from you, it’s always a tough pill to swallow.”
Two touchdowns, because the call on Harry came after another play on which the Patriots felt they were incorrectly docked a touchdown.
The first was near the end of the third quarter when Devin McCourty stripped Travis Kelce of the ball at the Patriots’ 36-yard line. Stephon Gilmore picked up the ball and started running with a clear path to the end zone and Jamie Collins running by his side in case he needed a block. Then he heard the whistle. Gilmore knew then that the play was dead, so he stopped running.
The ruling on the field was that Kelce was down by contact. The Patriots saw that Kelce had fumbled, challenged the call and won, but since the play had been blown dead, they didn’t get the return. At minimum that would have given them better field position, and Gilmore said he believed he would have scored a touchdown.
“They should have let us keep playing, but that’s the refs’ call,” Gilmore said.
That turnover began the drive on which the Harry play took place.
To a player, the Patriots said they lost because they played worse than the Chiefs. Bill Belichick would not talk about the officiating after the game, though he was visibly livid on the sideline at multiple times during it. Tom Brady acknowledged that the call on the play to Harry was blown but said that “doesn’t happen very often.”
Officiating was already becoming part of the game’s story line before those two major calls. Yellow flags flew frequently, including several in the first half that were picked up after the crew conferenced long enough that the game threatened to extend to the duration of “The Irishman.”
It didn’t always feel like the referees had the game under control. Phillip Dorsett said he was “99 percent confident I was interfered with” on a play on which he was targeted in the end zone in the fourth quarter. There was an offensive facemask penalty called on Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, which was not clearly wrong but fairly strange. There were calls that made the mild-mannered Matthew Slater scream and yell.
“I’m not trying to get fined,” Slater said after the game, in lieu of commenting on the officiating.
So there you have it. Players said they didn’t know what impact those calls ultimately had on the outcome, while they were sure their own mistakes played a larger role. But they also walked off the field with Gilmore, Harry, and Dorsett feeling that frustration, Harmon feeling that emptiness, and Slater feeling like there were stronger parameters in place to police what he might say about the calls after the game than existed to make sure they were made correctly in the first place.