Four 1st-half Penalties Changed the AFC Championship Game

As stated in the first part of this article, one-sided officiating directly lead to the Patriots beating the Jaguars in the AFC Championship Game.  To reiterate my stance, if the game had have been called equally, and more accurately by the officials it would be the Jacksonville playing in the SuperBowl this coming Sunday.  In part 2 of this article, I will outline the calls and non-calls at the end of the first half that changed the direction of the game, and ultimately, the outcome.

 

Towards the end of the 1st half there were 4 penalty calls, almost consecutively, that all went against the Jaguars.  These 4 penalties first killed a promising Jaguars drive that likely would have increased their lead, and then on the other end, lead to an easy Patriots touchdown to close the gap to 14-10 before halftime. 

 

Illegal Shift Penalty

The Jaguars were putting together another solid drive and their offense looked poised to march deep into Patriots territory again.  They were called for an illegal shift penalty which set them back 5 yards.  

After watching this play a number of times there was nothing there. No Jaguar player did anything that would resemble an illegal shift.  However, my biggest problem with the call was that Tony Romo and Jim Nantz said nothing about it, and CBS did not show the replay.  In a game that was projecting to be extremely close at that juncture, every call matters.  90% of NFL plays and penaties get replayed by the broadcast.  It was unacceptable for CBS not to show the viewer where the penalty call was.  And because there was no illegal shift, it was unacceptable for Romo & Nantz not to acknowledge the weak call. 

 

Delay of Game on Bortles

Within a play or two of the ‘illegal shift’ penalty, the Jaguars were called for a delay of game penalty- coming out of a timeout.  At the best of times this would be a head scratcher coming out of a timeout. On the broadcast Tony Romo said, “Wow that was super close, I don’t know…”

The Jags got the snap off and the play played through like normal- (flag was delayed).  Bortles completed a pass to Marcedes Lewis for a 1st down- approximately a  12 yard gain. If the gain stood, the Jaguars would have been in field goal range. The penalty flag was thrown very late- after the pass had been completed to Lewis.  This penalty created a 17-yard swing in yardage, taking the Jags well out of field goal range. 

The official play clock is on the wall behind the line of scrimmage, and the broadcast should have shown a replay from behind the offense that included a view of the official play clock.  I’ve seen that type of replay many times before and it was inexcusable on this critical play that they wouldn’t have shown the viewer the definitive view. 

 

In my opinion these 2 penalties, neither which were shown to the viewer, directly took points off the board for Jacksonville.  The illegal shift penalty was a bad call- there was nothing there.  The delay of game penalty coming out of the timeout stands as inconclusive because a replay was never shown.  The Jaguars ended up punting and the Patriots got the ball with a few minutes left in the first half. 

 

Penalty for huge hit to Gronkowski

The Patriots benefitted from two huge calls on their next drive, which essentially gave them what I would call an unearned touchdown. Without completing any notable plays they were able to score. 

The first penalty was on Barry Church.  Rob Gronkowski was in the process of catching a 20-yard pass and Barry Church rocked him to break up the catch.  Now on this occasion, I won’t be overly hard on the refs.  It was a big hit that looked nasty in real-speed, and Gronk was dazed from it. At real-speed I can see how the referees made the call they did. 

However, when one watches the replay, it becomes clear that Church lead with his shoulder.  His shoulder to the chest of Gronk was the initial point of the collision, and the helmet-to-helmet contact was accidental.  As a strong safety, it’s his job to break up a play over the middle with a hard hit.  He could have just as easily been the player injured on the play. 

Again, this one was tough at real speed, but the NFL should have come out after the game and made a statement that by rule that should not have been a penalty on Jacksonville. Accidental head-to-head contact is not a penalty, especially when shoulder-to-chest was the first point of contact.  This penalty gave the Patriots roughly 25 yards.

 I’m a Gronkowski fan, and you never like to see a player injured, but football is a rough sport and this was not a penalty by NFL rules; it was just a hard hit at full speed with incidental helmet-to-helmet contact. 

 

Pass Interference on AJ Bouye

This was absolute garbage call- it’s that simple. 

Brandin Cooks ran a terrible route and voluntarily stepped out of bounds before Bouye even touched him.  Bouye was looking back at the ball.  There was some hand-battling from both sides, but nothing whatsoever that resembled pass interference- especially in a playoff game where nothing marginal was getting called to this point- (other than the few aforementioned calls on Jacksonville).  The entire Jaguars defense had been called for an NFL-low 5 defensive pass interference penalties all season. 

What makes this call even worse is that the pass from Brady was uncatchable by two standards. Firstly, Cooks ran a bad route, was blanketed by Bouye, and not close to the ball.  Secondly, Cooks stepped out of bounds – and by rule cannot be the first player to touch the ball once he re-enters the field.  So even if he did catch that pass, it should have been ruled ‘illegal touching’. 

When there was absolutely nothing there, the sideline official hit the Jaguars with a 45-yard penalty, and gave the Patriots a 1st & goal from the 5 yard line. Truly a game-changing call. 

 

These 4 calls which happened nearly consecutively near the end of the first half changed the game entirely.  It took 3-7 points away from Jacksonville, and gave 7 points to the Patriots.  In a game where Jacksonville lost by 4 points, this 10-14 point swing changed the result….and we haven’t even talked about the 2nd half yet. 

In part 3 of this article, I will review the 3 major calls and non-calls that need to be addressed from the 2nd half.