Buffalo Bills Rulings Review (2022): Wild Card
The Buffalo Bills played their first playoff game of the 2022 season on Sunday, taking on a familiar opponent when the Miami Dolphins returned to Western New York for the second time in four weeks. The teams split the regular season series, but the injury to QB Tua Tagovailoa ballooned the spread and made the Bills 13.5 point favorites.
However, the game that wasn’t expected to be close ended up coming down to the wire. Buffalo won by three and advanced to the Divisional Round. The Bills were sloppy, the Dolphins were sloppy, and the third team on the field – the officials – were sloppy too.
Brad Allen was the referee assigned for Sunday’s game. Ironically, Allen took the lead on both of Buffalo’s most recent wild card games, the 27-24 win over the Colts in 2020, and the 47-17 demolition of the Patriots last season.
While some of Allen’s regular season crew would have been retained for the playoff game, there could have been officials from other crews assigned to his on Sunday. The NFL assembles “all-star crews” for its playoff games, taking high-performing officials on poorly-ranked crews and replacing poor-performing officials from highly-ranked crews. This is to ensure that a crew doesn’t lose out on a playoff assignment if they have a few poorly-graded crewmates, and so that high-performing officials on weaker crews can get their shot at a big game.
Oftentimes, this leads to really crisp games. You want the best officials on the best games, after all. But there is something to be said for continuity, something that was a little lacking on Sunday.
There were relatively few penalties on Sunday afternoon. Buffalo only had two accepted penalties on them, a 5-yard false start and an 8-yard defensive pass interference. Miami had seven penalties for 34 yards. Of those, five came on offense for 24 yards and two came on defense for 10 yards.
Despite these numbers, I think both teams played a little more outside of the rules than the small penalty count suggests. The crew really let the guys play out there, specifically in the trenches, where I feel a few offensive holding penalties could have been called on both teams. Due to the total subjectivity of offensive holding and the frequency of those types of plays on Sunday, I’ll leave them alone here. But let us begin our five plays from Sunday:
1.) Fumble vs. Incompletion vs. Illegal Forward Pass. Q1, 12:27.
This play happened on the Buffalo Bills’ first drive. It was 3rd and 5. Josh Allen was flushed from the pocket and scrambled left, looking to try and pick up the first down. LB Duke Riley closed in fast as Allen approached the line of scrimmage, when he pump faked a shovel pass and subsequently lost the ball.
There were a few caveats to this play. Did Allen fumble the ball, or was the act of losing the ball related to his pump fake? And if it was an incomplete pass, was he behind or in front of the line of scrimmage?
On this play, the crew somehow ruled that Allen had been behind the line of scrimmage when he threw an incomplete pass. Live, it was very hard to tell whether it was a forward pass or a legitimate fumble, but it was plain easy to see where he was on the field. Allen was a good two yards downfield when he lost the ball; if it had been an incomplete pass as the crew initially ruled, it should have come with a five-yard penalty from the line of scrimmage and a loss of a down.
Fortunately, as they’ve often done on obvious mistakes all year, the sky judge immediately intervened. Before much delay at all, they notified Brad Allen of the error, and he quickly corrected the call. Allen had in fact brought the ball back down after his pump fake; it was just a routine fumble out of bounds. They correctly placed the ball back at the spot of the fumble and proceeded with fourth down.
2.) Offsetting Unnecessary Roughness Fouls. Q2, 6:18.
Fights are something that crews pregame for. In the locker room before the game, they talk about their responsibilities, such as who will get involved, who will watch from afar, etc. Sometimes fights happen; fights during play are the most difficult.
After throwing an interception, DL Christian Wilkins attempted to block Josh Allen. CB Xavien Howard had a promising return, and Wilkins bumped Allen before turning to watch the runback. Frustrated, Allen shoved Wilkins back. The big man had started it, but Allen escalated it. Wilkins then chucked the quarterback, and a melee ensued.
All of this happened with referee Brad Allen standing right there. You can see him look uncomfortable; after Josh Allen chucks Wilkins, the referee looks back at the play to confirm it was still ongoing. Intervening here would not be possible, as it could interfere with the runback.
Though there’s no shot of both the fight and the play, it appears that when the play comes to a conclusion, Brad Allen attempts to separate Josh Allen and Wilkins. By then, it’s too late. Numerous Buffalo Bills players came to Allen’s rescue, and a full-blown fight ensued. Mitch Morse full-on tackled Wilkins, and a personal foul was correctly assessed to each player. The only thing more I think the crew could have done is assess a personal foul – or even eject – Spencer Brown for diving onto the pile. Doing so was unsafe, and unnecessary.
3.) No Call for Unnecessary Roughness. Q3, 00:46.
On this play, QB Skylar Thompson was flushed from the pocket by the Buffalo Bills’ pass rush. As he neared the sideline, which happened to be the Dolphins’ sideline, Thompson was clobbered by LB Matt Milano. Similar plays have happened in Bills games this year, both to Josh Allen and by Bills defensive players. The ruling is determined by whether the hit was unnecessarily rough and whether the player was out of bounds.
The severity of contact here could constitute unnecessary roughness if Thompson had been out of bounds. The clip above clearly shows that Thompson had yet to step on the sideline, and so, there could not have been a personal foul called on Milano for a late hit.
4.) Delay of Game, Miami. Q4, 2:29.
This was a fairly egregious delay of game foul by Miami. On the previous play, although RB Salvon Ahmed reached out and appeared to gain enough for a first down, his knee hit the ground right before that final stretch. It was 4th and 1, and what’s more, the play clock actually benefitted the Dolphins in this situation.
Immediately after the Bills stopped Ahmed short of the line to gain, the play clock correctly reset to 40 seconds. The train horn played in the stadium. Everyone knew it was fourth down, seemingly except for Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel.
The play clock ticked down to 14 seconds and the Dolphins hadn’t even entered the huddle. Then, for an unknown reason, the play clock reset to 25 seconds. Miami entered the huddle, called its 4th down play, and still couldn’t get it snapped in time.
Instead of the normal 40 seconds to snap the next play, the Dolphins had 51 seconds and still couldn’t get the snap off. On the most consequential play of their season, they took a delay of game penalty, and ultimately lost the game.
5.) Spot of the Ball. Q4, 1:16.
This was the play that sealed the game for the Buffalo Bills. On 3rd and 7, the Bills needed a first down to win the game. RB Devin Singletary took the carry and ran left, only to find a mass of Dolphins players four yards downfield. But the push from the offensive line spurned him forward, and he ended up at just about the Miami 34, the line to gain.
It’s entirely unclear whether Singletary got the first down here or not. I don’t think he did, but I can’t know for sure. This is the quintessential “ruling on the field stands” play. Whether the initial call was short or a first down, there is absolutely nothing on video to overturn the ruling.
What surprised me however, was that the referees did not conduct a review. I think Miami has a right to be frustrated with the lack of a review as the play was so close, even if it was unlikely to have been overturned.
I thought Brad Allen’s crew had a fairly mediocre game. They were incredibly consistent in adjudicating offensive holding infractions; they simply didn’t call them. It’s been a really long time since I’ve seen a game with no offensive holding penalties, and there were numerous times when both teams felt their defensive linemen were being held when rushing the passer.
Next week, the Buffalo Bills get Carl Cheffers as the referee. Remember, these are “all-star crews,” not Cheffers’ regular crew. But nevertheless, the splits are interesting. Whilst Cheffers fell around the middle of the pack for fouls per game on the home team, his crew was an incredible anomaly with respect to fouls against the visiting team. They led the league in flags per game on the road team by a hefty margin.
Cheffers’ crew called 5.6 fouls-per-game against the home team, compared to 7.2 against visiting teams. In the postseason, everything becomes amplified. These things matter more. Let’s see what happens Sunday afternoon.
Feature Image: Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images