The final Buffalo Bills regular season game was one of the most incredible and emotional sporting events I’ve ever witnessed. The hated New England Patriots were in Orchard Park, and essentially needed a win to extend their season, and the Bills were still reeling from the horrific injury to their safety, Damar Hamlin.
The officials – the third team on the field – were put in a difficult position as well. Though many see the zebras as robots, they are human too. They would have been feeling all of the emotion within Highmark Stadium and, like the players, would have had to suppress as much of it as they could so that they could perform their job.
Clay Martin was the referee on Sunday. In the final regular season game, Martin’s crew was solid. There wasn’t much to call. In fact, there were no accepted penalties in the first three quarters. But sometimes, when the game is that clean, officials will start looking for things that aren’t there, and calling fouls that don’t exist (though Ed Oliver was waaaaay offside on that run stop in the second quarter).
This was not the case on Sunday. Each team committed only two fouls for 20 yards, however, there were two penalties on Buffalo that were declined.
This is not to say that the crew was perfect. No officiating crew ever is. So let’s get into it. Here are the five plays I’m reviewing from the final game of the regular season:
1.) Catch vs. Incompletion. Q1, 12:31.
On this 2nd and 5 on the first drive of the game, Josh Allen targeted Stefon Diggs on the right side of the field. Diggs caught the ball near the sideline and turned upfield, getting three feet down and extending the ball past the line to gain. In an attempt to tackle Diggs, defensive back Jonathan Jones knocked the ball out of his hand and onto the sideline.
Initially, the line judge signalled incomplete pass. I attended the game, and though it is not shown on the CBS broadcast, he got together with the field judge. After a brief discussion, referee Clay Martin announced that the ruling was a completed catch.
This is the correct ruling. Diggs had possession of the ball, clearly had two feet in bounds, and made a football move by turning upfield and extending the ball. Good job getting it right with minimal delay, even if the initial signal indicated an incomplete pass.
2.) Catch vs. Incompletion. Q1, 5:05.
Though each of these first two plays are “Catch vs. Incompletion,” they are different plays. The first was about whether the player made a football move. The second is whether or not wide receiver Jakobi Meyers actually got two feet down in bounds.
Live, I thought he did. But I was sitting in row 37 of 38 rows in the upper deck. Looking back at the video, there’s no way this could be overturned one way or the other. I think he gets his first toe down, but I can’t know for sure. If this had been called incomplete on the field, I bet it would’ve stayed that way on video review.
3.) No call for Defensive Pass Interference. Q3, 8:00.
To this point in the game, there hadn’t been an accepted penalty. Perhaps this was a reason why the crew didn’t call a foul here.
I mean, Matt Milano is faceguarding running back Damien Harris and chucks him before the ball arrives. I don’t like a defensive pass interference foul on a morbidly underthrown ball like this, but by the book, it’s DPI.
This was a 2nd and 8 from the Buffalo 9. The next play was also an incomplete pass, which resulted in a field goal. Big swing with a no-call.
4.) Illegal Chop Block, Buffalo. Q4, 10:13.
On this 2nd and 8, Josh Allen threw the ball a little high to Dawson Knox, who made an incredible one-handed catch for 7 yards. Unfortunately, the crew made its most dreadful ruling of the day, pinning an illegal chop block on James Cook and Dion Dawkins.
An illegal chop block occurs when one player blocks below the waist and one above the waist at the same time. Cook executes a fantastic cut block on safety Kyle Dugger. Dawkins slides and taps Dugger very, very lightly on his shoulder pad. Is this considered “blocking a player above the waist?” I can’t think that it is.
This should not have been a foul. Perhaps the crew was on high alert, maybe thinking they’d missed a few in a game that to that point had two accepted penalties.
5.) Good Communication from the Crew. Q4, 2 min warning.
Sometimes, when you’re attending the game, you see things that you’d miss if you were watching on television. My nerdy head was envisioning the situation here: Buffalo is up 13 on the New England 20 with a 1st and 10, and New England has 1 timeout. Theoretically, the Bills could run three plays, not get a first down, and kick a short field goal with about 30 seconds left to go up by 16.
I am a Buffalo Bills fan. I am naturally thinking of doomsday scenarios.
But from the stands, I saw Bill Belichick call referee Clay Martin over to the sideline and talk to him about something, and I wondered what it could be. After about 20 seconds, Martin sprinted to the other sideline to talk to McDermott.
After the 2 minute warning, it became clear as to what the conversation was. Belichick had conceded the game. He wanted McDermott to know that he was not going to call a timeout, and the Bills could kneel the clock out in peace. It was a classy move from the Patriots coach, and a good job by Martin to inform McDermott. The Bills had an opportunity to kneel, show their number 3s to the stadium, and experience a very moving event with their fans.
Clay Martin’s crew did a fantastic job on Sunday. There wasn’t much to call, but sometimes when this happens, the crew will start looking for things that aren’t there. Aside from the phantom chop block, they didn’t do this and let the game happen in front of them.
Next week could be a little different. For the playoffs, the NFL occasionally breaks up the crews and installs “all-star” crews for the remaining games. This means that a referee could work with a new umpire, or a back judge could have unfamiliar field and side judges on his or her crew. It gives a crew an opportunity to get a playoff assignment even if one of their crewmates was graded poorly over the course of the season, and it allows highly-graded officials an opportunity even if their crew was poor.
On Sunday, the Buffalo Bills will have Brad Allen as their referee. Ironically, he called both of their most recent Wild Card games: their win over the Indianapolis Colts in 2020, and their win over the Patriots last season. In those games, the Buffalo Bills had just two and three fouls respectively. Perhaps they will commit only four on Sunday, and come away with a third consecutive Wild Card win…
See y’all then. Go Bills.
Featured Image: Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images