A Week to Grumble Before the Super Bowl

John Gilbert

Maybe the National Football League was brilliant in its foresight for leaving two weeks between the two conference championship games  and the Super Bowl. Don’t think of it as an interminable wait; think of it as just enough time for every columnist, analyst, cynic, and social media “expert” to spend all their remaining venom about how questionable officiating decided both of the overtime championship games.

Both games were classic that were only tarnished by some of those calls, beginning with the New Orleans Saints. Now, in Minnesota, it’s difficult to summon up much sympathy for the Saints, who won a Super Bowl by physically mauling Brett Favre to cost the Vikings a Super Bowl trip. That was when the Saint defensive coordinator came up with the bounty system that would pay bonuses to anyone who could knock Favre out of the game. For good measure, they showed some of that viciousness during the NFC final, in case any Minnesotans had forgotten.

I think the world of Drew Brees, and I had figured he would lead New Orleans into the Super Bowl and to victory once there. Of course, I also had picked Seattle and the Chicago Bears to win and play in this championship game, and both of them lost. I was pulling for the Saints because of Brees, but as that game went down to the wire, you had to admire Jared Goff as the young quarterback trying to match performances with the 40-year-old Brees.

We don’t need to discuss any questionable calls except one, which has gotten enormous play on newscasts, and every imaginable outlet. Even Stephen Colbert took time away from lobbing verbal grenades at Donald Trump to ridicule the call, using video of the kill-shot hit delivered about a half-second too soon.

In case you were visiting Neptune last weekend and missed it, here was the scenario:  Marching downfield with a chance to decide a 20-20 game, Brees sends receiver Tommylee Lewis up the right sideline, going for it all. Brees sends his trademark high-arcing pass up the sideline to meet Lewis at about the 3, right on the sideline. Loa Angeles Rams defensive back Nickell Robey-Coleman comes at Lewis at full speed, never bothering to look around for the ball.

If he had, he probably would have intercepted it. Instead, he ran straight on into Lewis, slamming into him with every part of his body, including head to head. Lewis absorbs the vicious hit as he reaches back, trying to make the catch. He couldn’t catch it, obviously, and two officials in perfect position to call pass interference never reached for a flag. They let the call go as an incomplete pass, and it was left for the Saints to settle for a  field goal and a 23-20 lead with 1:45 remaining in the fourth quarter.

Had interference been called, Brees and the Saints would have had first and goal, and they easily could have used up almost all of the remaining time while scoring a touchdown for a 27-20 lead with scant seconds remaining.

That left enough time for the Rams to get close enough for Greg Zuerlin to kick a 48-yard field goal — his third of the game — to tie the game 23-all with 15 second left. The Saints won possession to start overtime, when a Brees pass was deflected by a receiver and intercepted. In the NFL, if the first team with the ball kicks a field goal, the other team gets a chance at possession, and the game can only end if the first team marches all the way down to a touchdown.

Goff did a great job getting across midfield against the Saints exhausted defense, but they didn’t have to go far. Zuerlin lined up and kicked a 57-yard field goal to win the game for the Rams, 26-23. It was a game where you had to give full credit to Goff and the youthful Rams. Goff, at age 24, was 25-for-4,, while Brees, the master at age 40, was 26-for-40. New Orleans coach Sean Payton said he called the league office, and was defused by the admission that yes, the refs blew the call. They also said that pass interference isn’t one of the dozens of calls that are eligible for video review, but they will discuss adding it after the season.

The Rams are plenty worthy, and Goff is fun to watch. Turns out, so is the Rams secondary.

The AFC championship was similar, but different. The New England Patriots, a team that I suggested was through winning championships, escaped from the Los Angeles Chargers and had to go to Kansas City, the new kingpin record-wise in the AFC. The Chiefs are also a fun team to watch, and quarterback Patrick Mahomes is worth the price of admission. He, too, is one of the NF:L’s young lions at quarterback, and he has had such a fantastic season that it didn’t seem Tom Brady, at 41, would be able to defend his lofty post atop the conference QBs.

I feel about the Patriots the way I used to feel about the Yankees. They’ve won too much and I’m tired of them. Let’s move on to the next hot item, and it appeared to be Kansas City and Mahomes.

That, too, was a great and entertaining game. Brady was 30-for-46 for 348 yards, while Mahomes was 16-of-31 for 295 yards, but Kansas City sacked Brady four times, while the Patriots never got to the elusive Mahomes. The difference was that the Chiefs couldn’t ever stop the Patriots on crucial defensive situations.

I thought I had regained my predicting touch when Kansas City rallied for three touchdowns in the fourth quarter to take a 28-24 lead, just out of field goal reach, but there was still 2:03 remaining. My sons, and a good friend out in Maryland, were exchanging text messages with me about the game when Brady started moving his team downfield. I sent all of them a message predicting a scenario where Brady would take the Patriots in for a goa-ahead touchdown, but there would still be enough time for Mahomes to bring the Chiefs close enough for a tying field goal, then KC would win in overtime.

It almost happened. Brady was brilliant on that march, and New England gained the 31-28 lead with 39 seconds to play in the fourth quarter. Mahomes came through with his own style of brilliance, and, sure enough,  Harrison Butker drilled a 39-yard field goal with 0:08 showing for a 31-all tie, and overtime.

Brady won the toss and got the ball to start overtime, and he engineered a brilliant drive of 75 yards, connecting three times on third and 10 with key passes to make it all the way to the 2, from where Rex Burkhead crashed into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown. That was vintage Brady, and the feeling persists that he was trying to show all of us who thought he and his team were done that they aren’t.

There were, of course, several questionable calls involved at different points in the game. Perhaps the worst call was when Brady dropped back to pass and a Chiefs lineman rushed hard, pushing the blocker right back and almost into Brady. As Brady cocked his arm to pass, the rusher tried to reach over the blocker and swat downward, hoping to hit the ball as Brady threw, but instead he missed, and his hand swept downward just past Brady’s facemark as his forearm hit the blocker on top of the shoulder.

Somehow, an official behind Brady,. thought he had socked Brady and called roughing the passer. As they showed several replays, the whole nation and the Chiefs home fans, could all see that there was no roughing of the passer, and the penalty was extremely costly. Of such things do touchdowns get reduced to field goals, and overtimes are prevented.

Another extremely difficult call was on a Chiefs punt, which the receiver allowed to bouncboth of which were called catches ande. It appeared to skip past the receiver, although it looked like it touched either his thumb as it bounced or his leg as it skipped past him. The Chiefs recovered. The officials ruled it was a muffed punt, but after lengthy reviews, they couldn’t be sure the ball touched him, so it reverted to a dead ball, given to New England. Three of the videos looked like the ball missed contact by an eyelash, but the fourth made it look like the ball may have made the slightest contact with his thumb, in which case the Chiefs would have had the ball, and the victory.

Then there were two Patriots catches later, both of which were vital to the Patriots eventual victory. On both of them, the receiver made diving catches, and in both of them there was substantial question that the receiver used the ground to help secure the ball in his grasp. The first could have gone either way; the second was a touchdown catch and the announcers repeatedly said the new rules allow the ball to move slightly before final grasp is secured, and that happened, but without a doubt, one replay view showed the receiver trying to grasp it but unable to until he pins it against the ground and then scoops it up.

I am not faulting the officials on any of those calls, except the bogus roughing the passer. But it is amazing that all four of those pivotal calls went Brady’s way. Maybe it is his game and the rest of us can only watch, appreciate, and yes, grumble.

Now we’ve got another classic match of an aging championship team with a 41-year-old quarterback against a brash new team with a 24-year-old Pac-12 quarterback who can light up the place. Should be fun.