The Fine Fifteen: Can Anybody Call This Game?

The NFL said officials erred on a borderline call at the end of Ravens-Jaguars, but on bigger issues—what constitutes pass interference? what the heck is a catch?—the league remains disturbingly silent. Plus, Week 10 sees another unbeaten fall and a couple former frontrunners slip even further in the power rankings
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I think the NFL is becoming of league of officiating paranoia. Even when the wrong call isn’t blatant, it’s a big story.

Latest example: The final play from scrimmage in the Ravens-Jaguars game at Baltimore on Sunday was a panicked affair. The Jags scrambled to get one final play off from the Ravens’ 49-yard line, with no timeouts left. As the clock ticked down toward :00, the ball was snapped to quarterback Blake Bortles. At the time of the snap, a couple of Jacksonville’s linemen, most notably left tackle Luke Joeckel, got into position a millisecond before the snap. Was it a full second, as required by the rules? No. The ball was snapped, Bortles stumbled and fell, then got up—at which point Ravens pass-rusher Elvis Dumervil dragged Bortles down by the face mask.

The penalty call on Dumervil was legit; the flag had to be thrown, and it was. The potential call on the Jaguars for not being set at the snap? Marginal. Very marginal. The officiating crew marked off the 15-yard face mask call on Dumervil, awarded Jacksonville one final untimed down, and Jags kicker Jason Myers made a 53-yard field goal to win the game 22-20.

The league said the officiating crew had erred in not flagging the Jacksonville line for failing to be set for a full second before the snap. I get it, I suppose. But I’d rather the league admit mistakes not on truly nitpicky plays, but on plays where there’s an obvious and egregious error. You could run that Jags-Ravens play in front of 15 ardent fans and no one would notice the penalty if it hadn’t happened on the final play of a game, with the outcome on the line. In other words, there are probably five snaps a game on which players don’t come to a full-second stop or otherwise violate a rule when the line is set as late as it was on this one. I just think this one would have been very iffy.

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The league is under attack from all corners on officiating—from the vagaries of pass interference and what constitutes a catch to the sheer number flags flying, game after game. Of all the controversial calls this season, the NFL comes out  this week to correct itself on this one, to say that there should have been a penalty on Jacksonville? I would have let it pass.

Postscript: Baltimore coach John Harbaugh, whose team got jobbed on a couple of key calls at Arizona three weeks ago, said this on Monday, rather than blasting the league after the NFL admitted to a mistake: “It’s unfortunate, it’s disappointing, it’s gut-wrenching, it’s just the way it goes. In the end, we have to overcome all that stuff. I don’t care about officiating, I don’t care about the field conditions, I don’t care about our opponent. That’s the way our guys look at it. It does not matter. You’ve got to find a way to overcome everything. That’s just what we’ve got to do.” Inside, I’m sure, Harbaugh was furious. And I’m sure he let the league know his feelings about the non-call. But for public consumption he did the class thing. I like that.

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Now for the Fine Fifteen.

Watt and the Texans gave Dalton’s Bengals their first loss.

Watt and the Texans gave Dalton’s Bengals their first loss.

1. New England (9-0). A left tackle starting his first game at the position, a right tackle starting his first game at the position, three rookie starting interior offensive linemen, the starting back lost for the year to ACL surgery, the most important wide receiver lost in the first half against the Giants. Beat goes on. Pats 27, Giants 26.

2. Carolina (9-0). I don’t care how long Cam Newton celebrates anything. Just because I wouldn’t do it that way, or because some foes don’t like it, who cares?

3. Arizona (7-2). I know this: Carson Palmer is not bitter toward the Bengals regarding what happened over the first seven years of his career. He has a hunting place near Cincinnati. He orders coffee from a roaster in Cincinnati. Some of his best friends in the world are from Cincinnati. He is happy the Bengals let him find a new life after the 4-12 season in 2010. So don’t make Cincinnati-at-Arizona the revenge of Carson Palmer. It’s a phony storyline.

4. Cincinnati (8-1). Call it a trap game if you want to—a lackluster Bengals team failed to score a touchdown and fell to the Texans, 10-6, at home on Monday night—and yet if Tyler Eifert catches a couple of those passes he dropped, Cincinnati might still rank among the unbeatens. One thing’s for sure: Arizona, this Sunday night, will be even tougher than the Texans.

5. Minnesota (7-2). Incredible. In two months, the Vikings have passed the Packers, legitimately, in the NFC North. And Minnesota is playing Green Bay in Minneapolis on Sunday, with a two-game lead in the division at stake.

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6. Pittsburgh (6-4). Mea culpa. My error for not featuring Ben Roethlisberger prominently in my column Monday for his off-the-bench heroics to beat Cleveland. Now he’ll get a week to rest his bum foot before facing the Seahawks on Nov. 29.

7. Denver (7-2). Without Peyton Manning, the Broncos are the most mysterious team in football in Week 11. The game’s at Chicago. It’s going to be very tough to win.

8. Green Bay (6-3). Aaron Rodgers to Randall Cobb. Man, where did that combo go?

9. Kansas City (4-5). Put me on record as saying the Chiefs, even settling for field goals, would have beaten a classic Peyton Manning on Sunday. That defense is playing the way it should have all season right now.

10. New York Giants (5-5). I vote for the NFL to pass a new rule in the off-season. The Giants and Patriots should play four times a year, every year. FOX gets one of the games. CBS gets one. NBC gets one. ESPN gets one. I mean, it’s the best game in football, and I can’t quite figure out why.

11. Seattle (4-5). Getting tougher and tougher to have faith in this team. The Seahawks surrendering 39 points? At home? What planet is this?

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12. Chicago (4-5). Bears are 4-2 since October dawned, and Jay Cutler is playing like the willing-to-be-coached rookie he was under Mike Shanahan.

13. Washington (4-5). Jay Gruden probably never thought this on Labor Day, but he’s thinking it now: Kirk Cousins might be my lifeline to a long-term job in this town.

14. Buffalo (5-4). If Tyrod Taylor stays healthy, the Bills will break the longest playoff drought in the NFL.

15. Indianapolis (4-5). I think Matt Hasselbeck can beat Atlanta, and I think he can win some games. But can he keep the Colts afloat for a month?

Also receiving votes:

16. Atlanta (6-3). Coming off the bye, it’s time for the Falcons to prove themselves again.

17. New York Jets (5-4). Lost three of four. Deservingly.

18. Houston (4-6). Showed mettle on the national stage.

19 through 23. Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, St. Louis, Miami, Oakland (4-5). Put all on pieces of paper. Put names in bag. Pick.

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