The Rams defender, Nickell Robey-Coleman, clearly blows up Saints wide receiver TommyLee Lewis while the ball is still in the air, a textbook example of pass interference. There was some helmet-to-helmet contact there, too, which is also a non-no. Robey-Coleman has admitted that he got to Lewis early and that he expected to be flagged on that play.
Had the penalty been correctly called, the Saints would have been awarded first-and-goal and probably would have scored with no time left for the Rams to come back. As it was, the Rams did have enough time to get the ball back and send the game into overtime, where they punched their ticket to the Superbowl, 26-23.
I watched the game with my native New Orleanian fiancé; she was apoplectic. After the game was over, my Facebook feed (which is full of Saints fans) exploded. Twitter exploded as well. The Who Dat Nation is furious; Saints fans are putting up billboards, a New Orleans lawyer is suing the NFL, and even Louisiana Governor Jon Bel Edwards is formally complaining to the NFL.
None of these protests will change the outcome; bad calls (or non-calls) are simply part of the game. Furthermore, as the Houston Press's Sean Pendergast argues, that missed call is not what cost the Saints the game. The real culprit, he says, is Saints head coach Sean Payton:
That call did not lose the game for the Saints. If you're looking for someone to blame, Who Dat Nation, look no further than your head coach, who completely botched the final two minutes of that game. The Saints had the ball on the Rams 13 yard line, 1st and 10, with 1:58 left in regulation and the score tied at 20-20. The Rams had two timeouts left, so basically what this meant was that if the Saints just ran the ball three times and kicked a field goal, the Rams would have the ball with about 45 seconds left, down 3, with no timeouts. Instead, Payton called for two pass plays that went incomplete (one of them was the missed pass interference call) and essentially gave the Rams two extra timeouts. The Rams wound up with the ball, down 3, with 1:44 left and one timeout, more than enough time to kick the tying field goal and send the game to overtime. Yeah, the referees botched that P.I. call, but Payton had an avenue to win that would have kept the zebras out of the mix, and he chose not to use it. Sean Payton lost this game.Pendergast has a point, as I found myself scratching my head on the poorly-executed short pass attempt on first down. However, I'm willing to give Payton and his staff the benefit of a doubt on the playcalling late in the game because he didn't want to settle for a field goal; he wanted to score a decisive touchdown. The conservative running strategy Pendergast advocates would still have given Rams quarterback Jared Goff 45 seconds to get his team into tying field goal range: difficult, but by no means impossible when you have a good quarterback. For the Rams to go the length of the field and score a touchdown to tie the game with such little time remaining, however, would have been much more difficult.
Furthermore, Pendergast is being a bit disingenuous in his writing. The only reason Payton's second pass play call went incomplete is because of the interference; judging by the trajectory of the ball, TommyLee Lewis would likely have caught Drew Brees's pass if Robey-Coleman had not prematurely wiped him out. Pendergast's claim that Payton should have "kept the zebras out of the mix" by not passing the ball is also bizarre. Referees are always in the mix: it's their job to officiate the game - and to do so correctly - on every down. That means calling obvious pass interference penalties when they occur.
Besides, I sympathize with the Saints because I've seen a team miss a trip to the Super Bowl on poor officiating myself. Mike Renfro was inbounds!
We'll never know for sure, of course, if the Saints would have actually won that game even if the refs made the correct call. The Rams were in the NFC Championship game for a reason, after all: they were pretty good themselves. But there's no question that the Saints would have been in a significantly more favorable position to win if the flag had been thrown.
The NFL is going to spend the offseason discussing changes in officiating, including making "judgement calls" such as these reviewable. That's little comfort for the Saints or their fans.