Two of the NFL’s showcase games had the makings of professional wrestling events.
The NFC championship game had its own version of a “Royal Rumble” when both teams left the sidelines and met at midfield in the closing minutes of Philadelphia’s 31-7 rout of San Francisco on Sunday afternoon. The players were eventually separated but not before 49ers left tackle Trent Williams grabbed Eagles safety K’Von Wallace by the collar and slammed him to the ground, earning them both an ejection.
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson would have been proud, but the NFL should be embarrassed.
In fact, everyone in the league office should feel ashamed because the NFL shield, which league executives and players hide behind, took a hit Sunday night. A lot of fans are talking about the Kansas City Chiefs’ 23-20 win against the Cincinnati Bengals in the AFC championship game as if the result was scripted.
That’s insane, especially with so many players and coaches involved, but the perception is out there — “NFL Rigged” even trended on Twitter on Sunday night. Regardless, the games are supposed to be officiated by the best crews, which leads me to ask a simple question: Are these the best referees the NFL has to offer? Really?
The poor officiating started early. On fourth-and-3 on the Eagles’ first drive, quarterback Jalen Hurts threw a 29-yard pass to wide receiver DeVonta Smith that was ruled a catch after Smith appeared to make a diving, one-handed grab. Replays eventually showed that Smith dropped the ball while falling to the ground, but Smith and Hurts quickly got the Eagles to the line of scrimmage and ran a play before the catch could be reviewed. Running back Miles Sanders eventually scored on a 6-yard touchdown run to give the Eagles a 7-0 lead.
49ers coach Kyle Shanahan could have challenged the call, but this was something the referees should have gotten right from the beginning, especially if they wanted to set the tone.
Then there was the SkyCam wire hanging above the stadium that Eagles players claimed interfered with a 34-yard punt by Philadelphia’s Brett Kern near the end of the first quarter. It seemed as if everyone inside Lincoln Financial Field saw the punt hit the wire except for one of the seven members of the officiating crew led by John Hussey, who announced that a review of the play was inconclusive.
But wait, there’s more.
All season long, officials have been allowing plays to be completed, yet they blew the whistle after 49ers rookie quarterback Brock Purdy was hit on his throwing arm by Eagles outside linebacker Haason Reddick and lost the ball during San Francisco’s opening drive. It was originally ruled an incomplete pass but later determined to be a fumble recovered by Philadelphia. Unfortunately for the Eagles, nose tackle Linval Joseph didn’t get a chance to return the loose ball because the play was prematurely whistled dead.
At one point in the second half, Shanahan became so irate that he repeatedly circled an official on the sideline, and it might have precipitated what happened in the fourth quarter.
Perhaps it was the frustration of losing two more quarterbacks — fourth-stringer Josh Johnson was knocked out with a concussion in the second half after Purdy exited with an elbow injury — but there’s no excuse for the 49ers to completely lose control the way they did. The cheap shots that sparked the fracas showed a lack of character, culminating in Williams slamming Wallace to the ground.
The officials lost control of the game as well, and it was only slightly better in the AFC championship game.
Who could forget the do-over the Chiefs got in the second half because of poor communication by Ron Torbert’s crew? Despite failing to convert on third-and-9 with 10:29 remaining in the fourth quarter, Kansas City got to run another play because an official unsuccessfully tried to stop the game after noticing that the clock was running. On the second attempt, the Chiefs once again couldn’t convert, but a defensive holding penalty on Bengals cornerback Eli Apple gave Kansas City a first down.
The Chiefs eventually punted, so it didn’t affect the outcome of the game, but the whole situation left you scratching your head and wondering if the fix was in.
It sure looked like it when Bengals defensive back Mike Hilton was called for a soft pass interference that gave the Chiefs a first down at their own 45-yard line with 4:59 left. The Bengals forced a punt on that drive, too.
It all doesn’t sound like much until one considers what might have happened at the end of the game if there was more time.
That’s when we saw the biggest call of the day. With 17 seconds left, Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes scrambled for 5 yards to the Cincinnati 42 before a late hit by Bengals outside linebacker Joseph Ossai knocked him toward the bench, drawing a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty. It was a clear mistake by Ossai, but it ended up deciding the game as Harrison Butker was able to move close enough to kick a 45-yard field goal with three seconds left.
Coaches and players invest too much time to get to this point of the season to have it virtually thrown away by poor officiating. They know they aren’t going to get perfection, but they want to get as close as possible.
Pro football games aren’t fixed. That scenario is more likely in small leagues or individual sports like tennis and boxing. There are always going to be questionable calls and referees are prone to mistakes because they are human.
But there were too many Sunday. These conference championship games are the league’s marquee events, one step below the Super Bowl, which is why the NFL chooses its top officials for the postseason.
Those experienced eyes didn’t help Sunday. The games were saved by standout individual performances from stars like Mahomes and Reddick, but the officiating left a bad taste in the mouths of fans and it’s going to take a while before it washes out.