NFL playoff officiating decisions – What happened on controversial calls – right and wrong


Your instincts were correct if you felt like NFL officials were throwing more flags in the 2021 season. Penalties ticked up to 13.88 per game during the regular season, a bit higher than in the 2020 season (13.14) but still way below where they were in 2019 (16.17) and 2018 (15.87).

That’s the longer-term context as you watch this year’s postseason games. It would be a surprise if we saw many penalty-filled games, and with any luck we’ll spend the next four weeks talking about the performance of players and coaches, not about the fouls that were called (or uncalled) against them.

But there are many rules-based twists and turns to consider beyond flags. In the 2020 AFC Championship Game, for instance, then-NFL senior vice president Al Riveron allowed a review for a nonreviewable play. Ultimately, he reversed a call that should not have been looked at in the game that decided who would represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.

We’ll have all of your officiating needs covered in this post, which will be updated as needed with rule explanations, important context and other officiating trends. Come along for the ride. (The most recent plays are at the top.)

No facemask call?

Rams-Bengals Super Bowl, 14:44 remaining in the third quarter

What happened: Bengals receiver Tee Higgins grabbed Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey’s facemask and turned his head, pulling Ramsey out of position as Higgins jumped for a Joe Burrow pass.

How it was resolved: Higgins was not penalized, and his 75-yard ensuing touchdown play counted.

Analysis: This was not an unexpected outcome for those who had been watching the game closely. Referee Ron Torbert’s all-star crew threw only three flags in the first half, and all three were unavoidable: one for delay of game, one for false start and one for unsportsmanlike conduct when an inactive Bengals player (cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III) ran onto the field to celebrate an interception in street clothes.

That’s a long way of saying there was not a single flag for a “judgment” foul such as holding, pass interference and, yes, pulling a face mask. Keep in mind that Torbert’s crew didn’t throw a flag when Ramsey grabbed Higgins’ jersey on a third-down incompletion at the goal line in the first quarter, leaving the Bengals to kick a 29-yard field goal. Based on the way the first half was called, both teams were well advised to ramp up the aggression in the second half, and Higgins did just that. In every game, officials must judge whether contact with a player’s facemask is “forcible,” as required by the rule book. Because officials are human, interpretations can vary.

We have absolutely seen a flag for instances comparable to what Higgins did Sunday. But Torbert’s crew, to that point at least, had clearly not been looking to insert itself into the game. It’s up to players on both sides to adjust.

The touchdown would not have counted, and the Bengals would have been penalized 15 yards had a flag been thrown.


Illegal hit on Stafford?

49ers-Rams NFC Championship Game, 7:04 remaining in the first quarter

What happened: Niners linebacker Fred Warner hit Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford’s head with his own helmet following a 49ers interception, sending Stafford to the ground.

How it was resolved: There was no penalty, and the 49ers took over at their 23-yard line.

Analysis: Referee Carl Cheffers’ crew should have thrown a flag. The NFL rulebook prohibits such contact against a quarterback following a change of possession “until he assumes a distinctly defensive position.” Even after that, however, it is still a foul if “(1) an opponent forcibly hits the quarterback’s head or neck area with his helmet, facemask, forearm, or shoulder (2) if an opponent lowers his head and makes forcible contact with any part of his helmet against any part of the passer’s body.” The rule goes on to say that “this provision does not prohibit incidental contact by the mask or the helmet in the course of a conventional block.”

When you look at the play, it’s clear that Warner took a shot at Stafford’s head from behind. Whether or not Stafford was attempting to make a tackle — which he wasn’t — the hit was illegal according to NFL rules. The penalty would have been enforced after the change of possession, so the 49ers would have retained possession.


No taunting for Hill?

Bills-Chiefs divisional-round game, 1:02 remaining in the fourth quarter

What happened: Chiefs receiver Tyreek Hill directed a “peace sign” toward Bills defenders as he neared the goal line at the end of a 64-yard touchdown reception.

How it was resolved: Hill was not penalized, and the touchdown counted.

Analysis: The NFL’s 2021 emphasis on taunting was implemented in no small part due to Hill’s peace sign. He flashed it at the Buccaneers during a 2020 regular-season game. Buccaneers safety Antoine Winfield Jr. returned the favor during Super Bowl LV. During the offseason, the NFL’s coaches subcommittee implored the league’s competition committee to crack down on a form of taunting it believed should be banished from the game, leading to the second-most regular-season taunting flags (53) since at least 2001.

Referee John Hussey’s crew didn’t throw a flag. It’s difficult to imagine the level of vitriol if it had. But if that isn’t considered taunting in 2021, how do you explain what we saw the rest of the season — and earlier Sunday?


Weddle penalized for unnecessary roughness

Rams-Buccaneers divisional-round game, 12:38 remaining in the fourth quarter

What happened: Rams safety Eric Weddle hit Buccaneers receiver Mike Evans in the head on a fourth-down incompletion.

How it was resolved: Referee Shawn Hochuli’s crew penalized Weddle for unnecessary roughness because of a hit to the head or neck area of a defenseless receiver. The hit came a moment after the ball hit the ground, making it a dead ball foul to be enforced on the change of possession.

Analysis: This was a correct enforcement of the NFL’s complicated rulebook, one that was explained at length — but accurately — by Hochuli afterward. NFL rules declare a passing play over when the ball is “caught by a player of either team or is incomplete.” In other words, the play was over the moment the ball hit the ground. Because Weddle’s hit came after it, the Rams technically had possession of the ball when it happened.

The rulebook declares a dead ball foul as one that “occurs in the continuing action after the down ends.” An argument could be made that it’s not fair to make such an important distinction on two events that happen so close to each other. It’s not as though Weddle knew the pass was already incomplete. But ultimately that’s the way the rulebook is written.

Could the rule be changed? That’s unclear. Perhaps the NFL could add some additional teeth to player safety rules by deciding that they can’t be considered dead ball fouls. But for now, Hochuli made the only ruling he could.


Brady gets first taunting/unsportsmanlike conduct call of career

Rams-Buccaneers divisional-round game, 10:39 remaining in the second quarter

What happened: Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady was hit by Rams pass-rusher Von Miller, apparently causing his lower lip to bleed.

How it was resolved: Referee Shawn Hochuli did not penalize Miller’s hit, but he did throw a flag on Brady for taunting, apparently for complaining about the decision not to throw the initial flag.

Analysis: Among the criteria for roughing the passer in the NFL rulebook is “forcibly hitting the passer’s head or neck area with the helmet or facemask.” It’s reasonable to conclude that Miller hit Brady’s “head or neck area” with force if it caused his lip to bleed. So Brady had a point there.

Should he have been penalized for the way he spoke to Hochuli? It’s hard to ignore the coincidence of what happened. Brady had never been called for taunting or unsportsmanlike conduct in his career, regular season or postseason, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Just last week, in fact, Brady told Jim Gray, the host of his podcast, that “they probably let me get away with a lot of unsportsmanlike conducts, talking smack to the other teams and talking smack to the refs when I don’t think I get the right call. I’m kind of a pain in their ass if you don’t already know that.”

As we’ve noted many times, the NFL made taunting a point of emphasis this season. But the primary point was to minimize the instances of a player engendering ill will between teams. The Rams weren’t going to be incited by whatever Brady said to Hochuli. We don’t know what Brady said to Hochuli, but it would have been excessively rude and disrespectful to rise to the level of a 15-yard penalty in a playoff game.

Update: In a pool report, Hochuli said that Brady “got in my face in an aggressive manner and used abusive language.” Ultimately, it’s on Hochuli to decide whether the aggression rises to the level of a foul. He also said that he didn’t think Miller’s hit “rose to the level of roughing the passer.”


Was the taunting call on Suh warranted?

Rams-Buccaneers divisional-round game, 4:54 remaining in the first quarter

What happened: Buccaneers defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh hit Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford, and their bodies got tangled on the ground. Stafford pulled his legs out to stand up, after which Suh yelled at Stafford and pointed his right index finger at him.

How it was resolved: Referee Shawn Hochuli penalized Suh for taunting, eliminating an incomplete pass on first down and moving the ball from the Buccaneers’ 33-yard line to their 18-yard line. As Hochuli made the announcement, Suh could be heard saying that Stafford had kicked him.

Analysis: Suh’s contention that Stafford kicked him is a generous interpretation of what happened, to say the least. Remember, Suh is the player who in 2011 said that he hadn’t kicked Packers center Evan Smith during an infamous Thanksgiving Day game in Detroit. He has had a quick fuse for much of his career. With that said, did his actions constitute “taunting?”

The NFL’s rulebook defines it as “acts or words that may engender ill will between teams.” For most of the NFL’s history, a player verbalizing sharp words wouldn’t have risen to the level of taunting. But the league put a point of emphasis on this foul during the 2021 season, at the request of coaches. There were 53 taunting penalties during the regular season, the second most in a season since at least 2001, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

The call, while not unexpected, was a significant turning point in the first quarter. Instead of facing second-and-10 at the 33, the Rams got a first down at the 18 and scored a touchdown three plays later to extend their lead to 10-0.

Officials rule San Francisco incomplete pass, not fumble

49ers-Packers divisional-round game, 3:06 remaining in the first quarter

What happened: Replay officials reviewed 49ers receiver Brandon Aiyuk’s fumble at the Packers’ 43-yard line.

How it was resolved: Referee Ron Torbert announced that the call had been reversed to an incomplete pass.

Analysis: This was the correct outcome. An NFL catch has three elements. According to the rulebook, they are:

  1. Securing control of the ball in the hands or arms prior to the ball touching the ground.

  2. Touching the ground inbounds with both feet or with any part of the body other than the hands.

  3. After the first two have been fulfilled, performing any act common to the game (e.g., tuck the ball away, extend it forward, take an additional step, turn upfield, or avoid or ward off an opponent), or maintaining control of the ball long enough to do so.

The replay showed that after Aiyuk gained control of the ball, he took one step and then had the ball knocked out of his hands by Packers cornerback Rasul Douglas. In other words, Aiyuk did not hold the ball long enough to perform an act common to the game.

The easiest way to think of these is to look for three steps after securing the ball. The first two steps cover the second element of a catch, and the additional step would cover the third element. The NFL has had some strange interpretations of its catch rule this season, but this ruling was accurate based on its current rules.


Burrow interception stands as called vs. Titans

Bengals-Titans divisional-round game, 1:28 remaining in the third quarter

What happened: Replay officials reviewed Titans safety Amani Hooker’s interception of Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow at the Bengals’ 27-yard line.

How it was resolved: Referee Clete Blakeman announced that the call on the field would stand, giving the Titans possession at a key moment in the game. They scored the tying touchdown four plays later.

Analysis: Slow-motion replays indicated that the ball probably touched the ground as Hooker was making the interception. The key question was whether Hooker had possession before the ball hit the ground.

If it hit the ground before he gained possession, the call would be incomplete. If he gained possession first, the call would be an interception. It can still be an interception if the ball hits the ground after that point, as long as it doesn’t move. In this case, it did not.

Blakeman did not offer an explanation for the ruling, other than to say that the original call stood. So in truth, the NFL didn’t have to decide on the question of possession. Remember, the league has a long-held replay standard. It needs clear and obvious evidence of a mistake to overturn the call on the field. Based on multiple replay angles, it was a close call. By definition, close calls shouldn’t be overturned via replay. In this case, it was not, and that was a very fair outcome.

Update: The NFL tweeted out an explanation that made clear its replay executives determined that Hooker was “securing the ball just before it touches the ground” and that he “never loses possession and maintains control of the ball when it does touch the ground.”

Based on the tweet, the NFL did in fact make a call on the play itself, rather than simply lean on its “clear and obvious” standard. That’s a bit surprising, but it got us to the right spot regardless.


Baker injured on a collision

Cardinals-Rams wild-card game, 1:51 remaining in third quarter

What happened: Cardinals safety Budda Baker suffered a concussion, and possibly additional injuries, after a collision with Rams running back Cam Akers.

How it was resolved: No flags were thrown as a result of the hit, but there was an offensive holding penalty enforced on Rams offensive lineman David Edwards.

Analysis: There was a lot going on with this play. The first thing for referee Clay Martin to decide was whether Baker and/or Akers lowered the helmet to initiate contact with the other, which would be a violation of the NFL’s “use of helmet” rule. The replay showed Akers lowering his helmet as Baker arrived with his helmet down as well. But neither player overtly used his helmet to initiate contact, and as ESPN rules analyst John Parry said on air: “It looks like they’re trying to get the shoulders in and the head out. Just exactly what we want.” The use of helmet rule has grown so confusing and difficult to officiate that the NFL instructed referees to stop referring to it in their penalty announcements, as we noted during the regular season.

But this case did not appear to be a violation.

It was surprising, however, that Martin’s crew didn’t flag Akers for taunting Baker after the hit. As Baker lay on the ground, Akers stepped past and used a hand gesture that told Baker to stay down. That reaction prompted several members of the Cardinals to engage angrily with Akers, forcing officials to separate the teams.

NFL officials threw 52 flags for taunting during the regular season, the second most in a campaign since at least 2001, as part of a point of emphasis. Suffice it to say, they penalized many gestures and acts of far less consequence than what Akers did. No one would have protested that flag, especially considering the way it engendered ill will between the teams — exactly what the rule is intended to avoid.

Akers tweeted after the game that he didn’t initially realize Baker was hurt on the play.


Did Green catch it?

Cardinals-Rams wild-card game, 8:13 remaining in second quarter

What happened: Cardinals receiver A.J. Green pulled in a pass from quarterback Kyler Murray at the Cardinals’ 26-yard line and was hit by Rams safety Nick Scott, at which point the ball fell to the ground.

How it was resolved: Referee Clay Martin’s crew originally called a catch and a fumble. After a challenge from Rams coach Sean McVay, the call was reversed to an incomplete pass.

Analysis: It wouldn’t be a playoff game without a catch rule dispute, right? For some reason, the NFL struggled to adjudicate the catch rule all season. To secure a catch, current NFL rules require a player to gain control of the ball in bounds and then make “any act common to the game (e.g., tuck the ball away, extend it forward, take an additional step, turn upfield, or avoid or ward off an opponent).” The rule goes on to say: “It is not necessary that he commit such an act, provided that he maintains control of the ball long enough to do so.”

When you watch the replay, Green took a hop-step after the ball landed in his hands and then immediately lost control of the ball when he was hit. He did not fulfill the third element of a catch, and the NFL’s replay office in New York was correct to reverse the call.

The decision was clear enough that it’s fair to question why the replay official on site did not step in immediately to correct the call, as happened hundreds of times this season under the league’s new video assist rule. Martin’s crew spent an extended amount of time discussing the call, suggesting it was in communication with the replay official, but the original call stood until McVay was required to use a challenge.

McVay’s challenge was not without risk. Had the call stood, he would have been out of challenges for the rest of the game. The play was eventually adjudicated correctly, which is the most important part, but it took more time than it needed to.


Cowboys run out of time

49ers-Cowboys wild-card game, 0:14 remaining in fourth quarter

What happened: The clock ran out as the Cowboys attempted to snap the ball from the 49ers’ 24-yard line on the final play of the game.

How it was resolved: Referee Alex Kemp declared the game over, even after the snap was delayed for umpire Ramon George to adjust the spot.

Analysis: Kemp and George did their jobs. With 14 seconds remaining, Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott had run for 17 yards on a designed draw. Usually in that situation, NFL players are advised to hand the ball directly to the umpire or another official to expedite the spotting of the ball. By rule, there can’t be a snap until an official has touched the ball to confirm and/or adjust the spot.

Instead, Prescott handed the ball to center Tyler Biadasz, who put the ball on the ground at about the 24-yard line and stood over it as the rest of the Cowboys’ offense assembled. George had to push through their line to get to the ball, using valuable seconds. The snap came with one second remaining, rendering Prescott’s spike meaningless.

This was entirely the fault of the Cowboys, from the risky playcall with no timeouts remaining to Prescott’s inability to hand the ball to an official. Kemp and his crew did exactly what they would be expected to do.


Delay of game trying to catch the Niners off guard

49ers-Cowboys wild-card game, 13:26 remaining in fourth quarter

What happened: The Cowboys attempted to rush to the line with their punt team after converting a fake punt into a first down. Then, with 17 seconds left on the game clock, the Cowboys sent their offense onto the field for the first-down play.

How it was resolved: Umpire Ramon George stood near the center, preventing a snap. He moved into position with two seconds remaining on the play clock, leading to a delay of game for the Cowboys.

Analysis: As CBS analyst Tony Romo noted, the Cowboys were likely trying to catch the 49ers off guard for a second consecutive play. By keeping their punt team on the field and their offense on the sideline, they probably hoped to coerce the 49ers into calling a timeout.

It didn’t work, of course. And after they sent their offense onto the field, the Cowboys activated an NFL rule that requires officials to give the defense a reasonable chance to substitute. Here’s what the rule says: “If a substitution is made by the offense, the offense shall not be permitted to snap the ball until the defense has been permitted to respond with its substitutions.”

It was up to referee Alex Kemp to decide how long to give the 49ers to substitute. We could quibble about whether they needed 15 seconds to substitute, but the blame here goes to the Cowboys, who called for a high-risk play that would have netted a modest gain — at best.


Darden takes a late hit

Eagles-Buccaneers wild-card game, 12:01 remaining in the fourth quarter

What happened: Buccaneers kickoff returner Jaelon Darden brought back a kickoff 18 yards to the 22-yard line, and Darden took a late hit.

How it was resolved: The ball was moved back to the 10-yard line because of a holding call on the Buccaneers’ Rob Gronkowski, who was on the field as part of the hands team.

Analysis: Officials missed a late and blatant hit on Darden that was illegal for multiple reasons. Replays showed that Darden was tackled by Eagles safety Marcus Epps. Darden had started getting up, with his left knee still on the ground, when the Eagles’ KeeSean Johnson lowered his head and hit Darden’s helmet. The contact was forcible enough to knock Darden backward and onto his back, where he lay for several moments.

There is definitely an argument for holding back on some flags at the end of a blowout, but rules regarding player safety should always be enforced. Darden’s hit was illegal because it was late, and also because it was a textbook violation of the helmet rule, which prohibits players from lowering their helmet to initiate contact with an opponent.


A borderline roughing-the-passer call for a hit on Brady?

Eagles-Buccaneers wild-card game, 14:28 remaining in the first quarter

What happened: Eagles defensive end Derek Barnett hit Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady after he released a pass that fell incomplete.

How it was resolved: Referee Craig Wrolstad penalized Barnett for roughing the passer, moving the ball 15 yards downfield.

Analysis: Wrolstad’s regular-season crew threw the second-most flags for roughing the passer (12), and since the referee is usually the official that watches for that foul, it was reasonable to expect relevance on Sunday. As it turned out, we heard from Wrolstad within the first minute of the game — and not for good reason.

Barnett hit Brady below the waist, but above the knee. The NFL rulebook states: “A defender cannot initiate a roll or lunge and forcibly hit the passer in the knee area or below, even if he is being contacted by another player.”

This was a rule the NFL developed in part after Brady suffered a torn ACL on a low hit in 2008. But not even a charitable viewing of the contact would suggest it applied to this rule. The hit was legal, and if you have any doubt, you can note that Brady himself never appealed to Wrolstad for a flag.


Was this really roughing the passer?

Raiders-Bengals wild-card game, 1:51 remaining in the fourth quarter

What happened: Bengals defensive end Khalid Kareem made contact with Raiders quarterback Derek Carr after Carr released a 15-yard pass to running back Josh Jacobs.

How it was resolved: Referee Jerome Boger threw a flag for roughing the passer. The additional 15 yards gave the Raiders a 30-yard gain in total, putting the ball at the Bengals’ 35-yard line as the Raiders were driving for what could have been the game-tying (or winning) score.

Analysis: The NFL has moved in dramatic ways over the years to protect quarterbacks, creating rules that prohibit them from being hit forcibly in the head or neck area, as well as below the knee, when they are in the pocket or otherwise in a defenseless posture.

Boger did not specify why the flag was thrown, but at best, it appeared Kareem’s right shoulder or arm grazed Carr’s helmet. It would be up to Boger at that point to determine whether that contact was “forcible.” He is not tasked with taking into account the game situation, but you would like to see any call be obvious to the viewer — whether it is the fourth quarter of a playoff game or the first quarter in Week 1.

Carr did what he should have done; he made his case to Boger by snapping his head back and pointing to his helmet. It is always possible that another angle would show more forcible contact, but from what we could see on the NBC replay, it was not.


Errant whistle on Cincy touchdown

Raiders-Bengals wild-card game, 1:51 remaining in second quarter

What happened: Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow scrambled toward the right sideline on a third-down play from the Raiders’ 10-yard line. With the ball in the air, a whistle could clearly be heard on the NBC broadcast. Bengals receiver Tyler Boyd caught the pass for a touchdown.

How it was resolved: After a lengthy discussion among officials, led by referee Jerome Boger, the play was ruled a touchdown.

Analysis: Unless the whistle came from the crowd or someone other than one of the seven officials on the field, this should not have been a touchdown. There are two options here. Either the whistle was intended to rule Burrow out of bounds, or it was an inadvertent whistle. In either case, NFL rules require the play to be ended at the time of the whistle.

NFL rule 7, Section 2, Article 1(m) states: “[W]hen an official sounds the whistle erroneously while the ball is still in play, the ball becomes dead immediately.” In this case, the rule goes on to state: “If the ball is in player possession, the team in possession may elect to put the ball in play where it has been declared dead or to replay the down.”

The touchdown should not have counted, and the play should have been replayed. It is not reviewable. Players often stop playing when they hear a whistle, and it’s inherently unfair to allow post-whistle action to count.

A similar play occurred during a 2015 game between the Patriots and Bills. In that instance, referee Gene Steratore correctly halted the play, even as Patriots receiver Danny Amendola was running upfield, but erred in placing the ball at the spot where Amendola was when the whistle blew.

Postgame update: Walt Anderson, the NFL’s senior vice president of officiating training and development, said in a pool report after the Bengals’ 26-19 win that Boger’s crew decided “the whistle for them on the field was blown after the receiver caught the ball.”

Suffice it to say, Boger’s judgment here does not line up with any of the available evidence. The whistle was audible on the broadcast well before Boyd caught the ball. But given the structure of the rules, this explanation is the only possible justification for allowing the touchdown.

It should be noted that Anderson didn’t say anything to indicate he supported (or rejected) the explanation. He appears simply to have passed along the on-field judgment on a play that wasn’t reviewable.

Still, it strains credulity for this to be the NFL’s official line. Whoever blew the whistle on the field knows when he did it. The players who appeared to stop before Boyd caught the ball knew when they heard it. Millions of television viewers knew when they heard it. While it might have been painful, the more credible explanation would have been something that confirmed — even in retrospect — that a rule was misapplied and that the entire sequence didn’t meet NFL standards.

Finally, the pool report did not include any discussion about why the NFL did not use its new video assist program to step in and correct the mistake. It’s true that erroneous whistles are not reviewable, but the video assist rule allows replay officials and the league’s officiating department in New York City to “advise the game officials on specific, objective aspects of a play when clear and obvious video evidence is present, and/or to address game administration issues.”

To be clear: Addressing an erroneous whistle is an administrative issue. Deciding whether there was an erroneous whistle is a nonreviewable judgment call. The NFL had a way out here — telling Boger in real time that the down should be replayed — and it’s a mystery why it did not.


Raiders start drive at 2-yard line after returner steps out of bounds

Raiders-Bengals wild-card game, 1:18 remaining in first quarter

What happened: Raiders kickoff returner Peyton Barber grabbed the bouncing ball near the sideline and stepped out of bounds at the 2-yard line.

How it was resolved: Barber was ruled down at the 2, putting the Raiders in terrible field position for their third possession of the game.

Analysis: Barber was trying to capitalize on a little-known NFL rule in an effort to get the ball marked at the 40-yard line. What he wanted to do was step out of bounds and then touch the ball. When a ball touches a player after he has established himself out of bounds, the ball is ruled out of bounds at that point. Had Barber stepped out first, the Bengals would have been penalized for a kickoff out of bounds, and by rule, referee Jerome Boger would have spotted the ball the 40. But because Barber grabbed the ball before that, he was ruled to have run out of bounds with possession of the ball.

Multiple teams have tried to leverage that rule in recent years by deliberately stepping out of bounds and then reaching for the ball, most notably the Green Bay Packers’ Randall Cobb in 2012.



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