If there’s one thing I’ve come to associate with Christmas, it’s the Buffalo Bills at the New England Patriots. This is, weirdly, the fifth consecutive season that the Bills have visited the Patriots in Week 16. After losing the first three, Buffalo won the game last year, throttling the Patriots 38-9. Last year, the Bills had already clinched the division when they travelled to Foxboro. This year, they needed to win to take control of the AFC East.
Win they did. The Buffalo Bills knocked off their division rivals 33-21. It was a masterclass performance from the offense, particularly Josh Allen, but it was also a very clean game from both teams, with only 75 penalty yards.
Buffalo committed five penalties for 45 yards. Three came on offense for 25, and two were on defense for 20. New England had even fewer; three penalties for only 30 yards. Two were on offense for 25, and they had one defensive encroachment infraction that set them back 5 yards.
Two additional fouls by the Patriots were declined by the Bills. It is worth noting that there were offsetting personal fouls on both teams late in the game, which I will touch on below.
Shawn Smith was the referee for the game in Foxboro. Smith is in his fourth year as a crew chief and most recently refereed the Buffalo Bills’ Week 8 home game against the Dolphins. I thought Smith and his crew were solid on Sunday, but there are a few calls worth mentioning. Additionally, for the first time in a long time, I think their biggest mistake actually benefitted the Bills!
Here are the five rulings from this week:
1: No call for Unsportsmanlike Conduct / Unnecessary Roughness. Q1, 9:06.
I thought this was a dirty play from linebacker Matthew Judon, and I bet you already know the play I’m talking about. Josh Allen rolled to his right and hit Jake Kumerow over the middle for a first down. Judon, who was nowhere near Allen as he released the ball, looked like he accidentally stepped on Allen, but then flicked his leg to get the quarterback away from him. This second action tripped Allen. He fell to the ground, but luckily wasn’t injured.
After the following play, the CBS broadcast aired the altercation, which frankly surprised me. I think Shawn Smith could’ve and should’ve penalized Judon for the play. Not only was it unnecessary, it was unsportsmanlike. I legitimately think that stepping on Allen was an accident; flicking his leg to trip him was not.
Buffalo Fanatics could not possibly allow me to write the words that I shouted at my television when I saw this replay, and watched as Judon went to the sideline. At the time, I thought that Judon injured himself while attempting to injure Allen. More likely, he was tired and experienced early symptoms of Covid, as he tested positive on Monday morning.
Either way, I thought this was a miss from Smith as the referee. This contact was his responsibility, and he consciously passed on a flag. Fortunately, Allen was okay, and threw the game’s first touchdown four plays later.
2: No call for Holding / Pass Interference. Q2, 1:53.
I’m at a loss to explain why Stefon Diggs doesn’t earn the holding penalties that other elite receivers get. Is he not fast enough? Not elusive enough coming out of his breaks? I don’t know. But Diggs has been mugged several times this season without drawing a flag.
This was a 2nd and 11 from the 12-yard line. Diggs ran at cornerback J.C. Jackson, who held Diggs’s jersey for the duration of his route. Jackson backed off as the ball approached the two, and almost intercepted the pass.
This absolutely could have been called pass interference, as the ball was in the air while Jackson is interfering with Diggs’s ability to catch it. As Jackson held for the duration of the route, I think defensive holding would have been the more appropriate ruling. Either way, I was quite surprised that neither was called. It brought up 3rd and 11, but Diggs managed to run a route where the corner simply could not hold him, and he caught a touchdown.
I bring this play up because these types of rulings have gone against Buffalo all year. In fact, the Buffalo Bills have committed sixteen defensive holding penalties all season, more than one-per-game. This is easily the highest total in the NFL. Moreover, they have only accepted one defensive holding penalty against their opponent all year, tied with Seattle for the fewest. This is an absurd discrepancy. You have to hope it balances out.
3: No call for Unnecessary Roughness. Q2, 1:22.
After Diggs caught the touchdown to go up 17-7, New England had a chance to answer before the half. The Patriots had a 1st and 10 from their own 40 and put solid pressure on quarterback Mac Jones. He scrambled right and ran out of bounds for a seven yard gain.
Jerry Hughes closed the distance on Jones as he neared the sideline, and once Jones was already out of bounds, he put both hands on the quarterback’s shoulder pads and pulled him to the ground. The officials immediately flagged Hughes for a late hit out of bounds. Replay showed that this was the right ruling. Jones was very much out of bounds when Hughes made first contact, and then unnecessarily pulled the quarterback to the ground.
Then, the referees deliberated. I feared that they might eject Hughes for the play, which I felt would have been harsh. It was clearly a foul, but I didn’t think it would warrant a disqualification. Crazier things have happened, though.
Then, after 67 seconds together, the officials picked up the flag. Instead of a massive foul that would have put the Patriots close to field goal range, they had a 2nd and 7 from their own 47. You can read Shawn Smith’s reasoning for picking up the flag here. In short, his crew believed that although the contact was late, it was incidental. I believed it was a pretty big error.
Fortunately for Bills fans, it got even better. As the teams were lining up for the 2nd and 7, offensive lineman Trent Brown approached Gregory Rousseau, who was standing directly beside an official. Brown came in clapping and nodding his head. This action, when directed at an opponent, has consistently been flagged as taunting this season. The officials, correctly, penalized Brown.
What could have (and definitely should have) been a fifteen-yard penalty benefitting the Patriots became a fifteen-yard penalty benefitting the Bills. It’s a thirty-yard swing. This is an enormous swing at any point in the game, but particularly when an offense is trying to run a two-minute drill and get back into the game.
4: Offsetting Penalties. Q4, 8:31.
On this 2nd and 9, Mac Jones scrambled for exactly nine yards and a first down. As he slid to the ground, Matt Milano landed on him, warranting a flag for unnecessary roughness. Subsequently, center David Andrews ran up to Milano, got in the linebacker’s face, and started an altercation, which spread to other players. He was flagged for taunting.
The officials took a short time to deliberate, and they got the enforcement correct. Both penalties occurred after Jones slid to the ground, and therefore, after the 2nd and 9 play was over. Both penalties were, correctly, treated as offsetting dead ball personal fouls. Milano’s late hit didn’t move the Patriots half-the-distance to the goal, and Andrews’s taunt didn’t result in any lost yardage either. Notably, Milano’s penalty did not give New England and automatic first down. Jones earned the first down with his nine-yard scramble.
This was very well officiated. The officials got Milano’s contact correct, and then watched as Andrews started a subsequent altercation. Then, they deliberated for a little bit. Better to take your time to get it right than to make a mistake and have to fix it.
5: No call for Ineligible Receiver Downfield. Q4, 2:34.
Including a play earlier in this game, the Buffalo Bills have had two touchdowns nullified by ineligible receiver downfield penalties in their past five games. Earlier in this half, Daryl Williams drifted downfield on a passing play, taking away a touchdown by Dawson Knox. For a brief moment, I thought the exact same thing happened here.
Here, Daryl Williams engaged linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley one yard downfield, which is legal, even on a pass play. Williams, who is much bigger than Bentley, used his leverage to push the linebacker further downfield and deeper into the end zone. This is perfectly legal too. So long as an offensive lineman maintains his block, he could theoretically drive a defensive player out the back of his own endzone.
Everything changes when the offensive lineman stops blocking. At this point, he cannot travel any further downfield while the ball remains in the quarterback’s hands. He has to stay put, move laterally, or move backwards.
On this play, Williams was still blocking as Allen released the ball to Knox on the shovel pass. This is a legal play.
When I watched it live, I thought Williams committed a penalty. Apparently, so did linebacker Matthew Judon, the player who tripped Josh Allen earlier in the game. Judon jumped up and down, waving his arms around, apparently begging an official to nullify another Bills score. Here’s a photo of that too, because I’m petty.
This was a really well officiated game from Shawn Smith and his crew. There was really only one egregious mistake, and fortunately for the Mafia, it benefitted the Bills. I thought Smith did a great job. I’d be surprised if he doesn’t get a premium playoff game. The crew chief is only in his fourth year, and has already officiated Wild Card and Divisional round games. I’d be surprised if he doesn’t get a Conference Championship game, or even more.
Next week might be less fun for the Buffalo Bills (and for me) when I write my recap. Land Clark is the official for the Falcons-Bills game. We last saw Clark and his crew in Jacksonville, when they officiated the Bills’ 9-6 defeat to the Jaguars. In that game, Clark’s crew called twelve penalties for 118 yards against the Bills, and eight for 54 against the Jaguars. You can read about it here. If I remember correctly, I was pretty damn scathing.
This time, I think we will see a different Buffalo Bills team. They’re coming into their own at the right moment and, if they win the next two games, they’ll win the AFC East for the second straight year. As 14.5-point favorites, it might be a fun Sunday. Go Bills.