In the most consequential divisional game for the Buffalo Bills in a generation, the New England Patriots came into Orchard Park for Monday Night Football. With ten days to prepare, the Bills were hopeful to beat their rivals and command the AFC East. Instead, they lost to a team that threw the ball three times, falling 14-10.
Predictably, the game was one of the cleanest of the season for the Bills. Due to the poor weather, both teams had a conservative approach, taking few risks and minimizing the possibility for penalties. Additionally, the officiating crew was led by Bill Vinovich. His crew has called the fewest penalties-per-game of any crew in the league.
Vinovich continued the trend on Monday Night. There were only nine flags in the entire game. The Buffalo Bills committed three penalties for 20 yards, all of which happened on the offensive side of the ball. Meanwhile, the New England Patriots had six penalties for 47 yards: two on offense for 15, three on defense for 27, and a false start on a punt that cost them five yards.
Despite the small amount of fouls, their importance were heightened due to the nature of the game. When the weather is pleasant and teams can pick up big chunks of yardage on any given play, penalties are easier to overcome. Moreover, when the game is mostly smooth, you’d hope the officials get a call correct when a contentious play finally does happen. While I think Vinovich and his crew had a decent performance, there are a few calls (and non-calls) worth pointing out here. I think that Buffalo’s conservative gameplan was the chief culprit for their demise on Monday Night, but had some of these calls gone a different way, perhaps the result would have too.
These are the five plays I’d like to talk about from this week:
1: Offside, New England. Q1, 7:52.
I’ve included this play specifically to be a foil for the #4 play. On this play, defensive end Matthew Judon was lined up opposite Spencer Brown. Judon jumped forward, which caused Brown to get out of his stance before the ball was snapped. When this happens, the play is blown dead. If the defensive player was in the neutral zone, it’s a defensive penalty. If not, it’s a false start. Here, Judon had, in fact, broken the line of scrimmage, and the officials correctly called a defensive foul. On the next play, Josh Allen hit Matt Breida to pick up a first down. On the play after that, the pair fumbled the snap, and the Patriots took possession.
Though this was the correct call, I’ve written about the officiating inconsistencies at the line of scrimmage before. On a fourth down in Week 8, Josh Allen appeared to get the defensive lineman to jump across the line of scrimmage before the snap. It was (incorrectly) not called. In Week 11, Allen thought he got the defense to jump early, and forced a pass into double coverage that was intercepted. It was (correctly) not called.
This play wasn’t quite like the others. It was blown dead because Spencer Brown moved. Nevertheless, it’s worth pointing out because I think the referees missed a blatant offside later in the game, in a much more meaningful spot.
2: Delay of Game, Buffalo. Q2, 6:28.
This might be the quickest delay of game you see all season. On a 2nd and 9, on the New England 39-yard-line, the offense was slow to get to the line of scrimmage. The play clock hit zero for a brief moment, and the play was blown dead. Delay of game, Buffalo. In normal circumstances, the Bills offense could likely overcome that 2nd and 14. In a game with swirling winds and a conservative gameplan, it was much more difficult, and it didn’t end up happening.
Rules analyst John Parry pointed out the officiating procedure for delay of game while live on the broadcast. The back judge is responsible for the play clock. That official will watch the clock until it hits zero, and then he or she will lower their head to find the ball. If the ball is still in the center’s hand, then he or she will blow it dead.
In this instance, the play was blown dead immediately when the clock hit zero. Parry even admitted that “based on the whole season (of how this penalty is called) it’s a really tight delay of game.” It was wrong to blow the play dead that quickly, and Sean McDermott became absolutely incensed.
What’s more, a very similar play happened when the Patriots had the ball. Later, when the play clock hit zero, the officials determined that the Patriots had requested a timeout a split second prior. Whether they did or did not, I don’t know. Regardless, it’s a horrible look for the crew, and it angered McDermott even more than the initial delay of game. If the crew didn’t make the error in the first place, it’s likely McDermott wouldn’t have complained at all. But when these kinds of inconsistencies occur within a game, it’s hard not to be mad, whether you’re a coach or a casual fan.
3: Unnecessary Roughness, New England. Q3, 7:50.
I hated the delay of game call against the Bills, but I think this was the worst call of the game. On a 3rd and 7, Josh Allen scrambled to his right and tried to stretch for a first down. It was quite similar to the play before the infamous fourth down sneak in Tennessee.
On this play, Allen was bumped by the linebacker toward the sideline, and leapt in the air to try and stretch toward the marker. While he was still airborne, he was hit by defensive back Myles Bryant, who pushed him out of bounds.
Allen ran back to the huddle, preparing for a 4th and short situation. Then, somehow, the officials threw a flag for unnecessary roughness against Bryant. Not only was it a wildly late flag, it was incorrect.
Allen is still airborne in this photo. He has not yet touched the sideline. A defensive player forcing him out of bounds is entirely legal. This changed the situation from a 4th and short to an automatic 1st down, 15 yards down the field, at the 20-yard-line. There, the Bills called a Zach Moss run, which gained three yards. Then, two consecutive incompletions.
Though the drive stalled and the Buffalo Bills gained three points, perhaps they wouldn’t have succeeded on the 4th and 1 that would have occurred had this penalty not been called. It’s not the first time a late hit has been wrongly called this year. In Week 11, the officials flagged Jordan Poyer for unnecessary roughness when Colts wide receiver T.Y. Hilton was still in bounds.
4: No call for Offside. Q4, 7:33.
This is the play that I was referring to when I talked about the Judon offside. This was a 3rd and goal from the 15-yard line. Allen tried a hard count, which appeared to get defensive lineman Deatrich Wise Jr. to jump into the neutral zone. Unlike the earlier play, none of the Buffalo Bills offensive linemen reacted to the movement. The ball was snapped, and by rule, this play is not supposed to be blown dead immediately, unless Wise posed an imminent threat to the quarterback.
On this play, Wise was so plainly in the neutral zone that even commentator Louis Riddick noted Allen had a free play. On that play, Allen tried to throw to Dawson Knox in the endzone, but the play was incomplete. Allen expected to see a flag, giving him another attempt at a touchdown. But there wasn’t one.
This is not the first time that the officials have missed this play. I have no idea how it continues to happen. It’s quite rare to see Allen get a free play, something that many other quarterbacks frequently benefit from. This non-call proved consequential. Not only did the Buffalo Bills miss out on another chance at the endzone, but they were forced to kick a field goal five yards further away than they should have. Again, in a normal weather game, that’s no big deal at all. In a windstorm, Tyler Bass missed the short kick.
5: No call for Pass Interference. Q4, 2:11.
This play was a 3rd and 14 from the New England 18-yard line. Allen had to elude several pass rushers before scrambling to his right. He tried to find Dawson Knox in the endzone, but defensive back Adrian Phillips was right with him, and punched the ball away.
Many fans wanted pass interference. From a still photo, it certainly looks like the officials missed one.
But still photos do not tell the whole story. A play in any sport is not a snapshot, it’s a movie; one cannot tell the plot of a film from a still image. From the moment that Allen scrambled to his right, Knox and Phillips were fighting for position. It’s hard to argue that either one of them were more or less responsible for the contact than the other. Phillips tugged on Knox initially, but Knox threw Phillips out of the way as the ball comes at them. When the ball arrives, Knox had better positon, but Phillips made a great play to punch it away.
Here’s the play. I’m entirely supportive of a no-call here. What do you think?
Tell me if you’ve read this before, but I thought Vinovich’s crew was thoroughly okay. Officials are going to make mistakes. I thought they made three. In most games, when there are dozens of contentious plays, we’d praise NFL officials for making just three mistakes. In a game when nothing really happened, three mistakes become three glaring errors that can impact the outcome of the game.
Nevertheless, I do not think the officials were the main reason why the Buffalo Bills lost to the New England Patriots. Not at all, actually. The Bills were inferior on both sides of the ball and on special teams, and were thoroughly out-coached. (Tell me if you’ve read that before, too.)
Next week, the Bills will see a radically different officiating crew when they fly to Tampa to play the Buccaneers. Bill Vinovich’s crew has thrown the fewest flags this season. Next week, the Bills will have Scott Novak’s crew, who have thrown the third most. The Buffalo Bills should expect a lot of penalties. Also, given that Tampa Bay’s secondary is one of the most penalized in football, they should plan to throw the damn football.
See you all next week. Go Bills.
And throw the damn football.