Super Bowl LIII is Going to be Great (Unless the Refs Mess it Up)
Don't lose sight of one of the most intriguing Super Bowl matchups in years because the referees screwed up over the weekend.
Photo by Larry W. Smith/EPA-EFE
"REFFING UNBELIEVABLE," blared Monday's New Orleans Times-Picayune, over a photo of the glaringly obvious pass-interference call missed by Bill Vinovich's officiating crew. Vinovich told the Associated Press that he not only didn't see the game-changing foul seen by millions who were watching in real time, he hadn't even been curious enough to go back and watch the replay.
On the other side of the bracket, the New England Patriots' game-ending touchdown drive turned up the heat on the long-simmering debate about the NFL's overtime format.
All this noise about the league's struggles to draw up and enforce rules drowned out what should be our collective water-cooler talk: Two incredible playoff games that set up one of the most intriguing Super Bowl matchups in years.
The Saints scored the first 13 points of the NFC Championship Game, and led by 10 in the middle of the third quarter. But the Rams clawed their way back into it, and kicker Greg Zuerlein's second field goal tied the game with 5:06 left in regulation. That was enough time for the Rams to score again—but it shouldn't have been.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees led his squad from their own 30-yard line to the Rams' 13 in just over three minutes, setting up a critical 3rd-and-10. That's when the Rams' Nickell Coleman lit up Saints wideout Tommylee Lewis well before the ball got anywhere near him.
Not only was that hit blatant pass interference, it would be a personal foul even if Lewis had already caught the ball! Per the NFL's 2018 catch rules, Lewis should have been "considered defenseless throughout the entire process of a catch, up until the player is capable of avoiding or warding off impending contact."
The Saints did then kick a chip-shot field goal to take the lead, but the Rams had just enough time left to come back. ESPN statistics and game-modeling guru Brian Burke wrote that no-call robbed the Saints of the ability to run about 90 seconds off the clock—and changed their post field-goal Win Probability from 98 percent to 78 percent.
Rams quarterback Jared Goff and company quickly drove within striking distance of Zuerlein's big leg, and forced overtime. On the opening drive of the extra period Brees rushed a throw, which was then intercepted—on a play that also could have been (not quite so obvious) interference.
After the game, NFL VP of Officiating Al Riveron reportedly spoke to Saints head coach Sean Payton and acknowledged the blown call that likely cost New Orleans a Super Bowl berth. That's little comfort to Payton and the Saints, who've now lost two straight playoff games on last-second flukes.
You'll never guess how the NFL's reacting…no, wait, you definitely will: They're publicly mulling making pass interference a reviewable play, which would add yet another reactionary twist in the Gordian Knot that is their rulebook.
Over in the AFC, Pats quarterback Tom Brady kept pace with sophomore sensation (and possible league MVP) Pat Mahomes, knocking Mahomes and the Chiefs out of the playoffs with an impressive overtime touchdown drive. That didn't stop Twitter from collectively crediting the coin toss for the Pats' third straight Super Bowl berth, fourth in five years, and fifth in eight:
Mahomes had to watch helplessly from the sideline as his defense gave up its fifth touchdown of the game—just as the gunslinger he's been compared to, Brett Favre, had to watch his special teams and defense melt down in the 2009 NFC Championship game, which prompted the change to the current overtime format.
But instead of talking about the NFL's haphazard guardianship of its incredible game, we should be talking about the actually incredible game Super Bowl LIII is shaping up to be.
While the explosive Rams were ranked No. 2 in scoring offense and No. 20 in scoring defense, the balanced Pats ranked fourth and seventh, respectively. Both teams' defenses racked up turnovers while their offenses avoided them, finishing fourth and fifth in turnover differential.
Both teams run the ball well, too, with Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson leading the Rams' third-ranked rushing attack, and rookie Sony Michel combining with Pats stalwart James White to form the league's fifth-most prolific ground game.
Narrative-wise, the teams are trending in opposite directions.
The Rams started the season white-hot, winning 11 of their first 12 games; their only loss was against the Saints in New Orleans. But Los Angeles lost two of their last four regular-season games, and struggled against a flawed Dallas Cowboys team before getting revenge against the Saints on Sunday.
Meanwhile, Brady and the Pats went just 3-5 on the road in the regular season. They dropped early games to the Jacksonville Jaguars and Detroit Lions (combined record: 11-21), then lost three of five games between Week 10 and Week 15. But from Week 17 on they've been unstoppable, outscoring the Chiefs, San Diego Chargers, and New York Jets by a combined score of 116-62.
Finally, there's the sure-to-be-overplayed torch-passing narrative between Brady and Goff. When Goff was born in 1994, Brady, a fellow California native, was reportedly already a silent commit to the University of California. But just weeks after an infant Goff celebrated his first Christmas, Brady publicly flipped his commitment to Michigan. 17 years later, Goff would go on to commit to Cal himself.
Of course, Brady still doesn't look ready to give his torch to anybody. Goff, who had a brutal rookie season and a shaky last two months, doesn't have the worthiest claim anyway. But these two teams are in the Super Bowl because these two quarterbacks delivered in the most clutch situation possible: elimination overtime.
Let's just hope that on the Monday after Super Bowl LIII, we're talking about similarly amazing performances in a similarly exciting game—and not whatever way the NFL somehow managed to screw it up.