I’m generally not a conspiracy theorist, but it was late in the fourth quarter of the Sunday Night Patriots-Broncos game that I became one. New England was hanging on to a 21-17 lead, with Denver inside the 10-yard line and facing a second-and-goal. Defensive tackle Alan Branch made a great bulrush up the middle, sacked Brock Osweiler and forced the Broncos to a 3rd-and-19. It looked like game, set and match and the Patriots staying undefeated.
Then the NBC audience was told of the penalty flag. New England’s Patrick Chung was whistled for a defensive hold. A replay showed that this was about the chintziest call you could imagine. This was right on top of a crucial offensive pass interference penalty that negated a key first down by Patriot tight end Rob Gronkowski a little earlier. The Gronk penalty was soft, but at least debatable. The phantom hold on Chung was not.
Denver took advantage of the gift, the negation of the sack, the half-the-distance yardage and the automatic first down. Even though Tom Brady again demonstrated his greatness, battling through the snow to get a game-tying field goal in a timespan of less than thirty seconds, the Broncos won in overtime—an OT that almost certainly never comes about if Branch’s sack is upheld.
Bad calls happen all the time, and in the ultra-cheap NFL, which won’t pay its officials to be year-round employees, they happen ever more frequently. Maybe this was just another bad night for the refs. But in light of the NFL getting trounced by Tom Brady in court, and undoubtedly dreading a run at a perfect season, is it so unthinkable that the league saw this prime-time road game against pro football’s best defense as their best shot to derail the Patriot freight train?
Normally I would say that no league could be so stupid as to jeopardize its billions by risking the credibility of its games over a relatively inconsequential court fight, regardless of how high-profile it was. But it’s also stupid for a league this rich to go on the cheap with referees, to massacre the Ray Rice situation and to do any number of things the NFL already does. The corporate structure of this league is governed by hubris, and even though I’m sure I’ll settle down at some point in the near future, I found it hard to enjoy the rest of what was otherwise an outstanding football game.
One thing I don’t want to do is to take away from Denver. Even though they should have lost last night, I still feel like this is a better all-around team than New England, particularly as the Patriots keep getting injury after injury, with Gronk being the latest casualty. The Broncos do everything well on defense. They run the football. And if Peyton Manning can get his foot healthy, this missed time could be the best thing that’s happened to him, in that it buys him some rest before the January push. I hope we get an AFC Championship Game rematch (sorry Cincinnati) and one where the officials aren’t decisive.