One week after the Buffalo Bills defeated the New England Patriots and took control of the AFC East, they headed home against the Atlanta Falcons. The Bills needed to beat the Falcons and then the New York Jets to win their division for the second consecutive year.
Buffalo and Atlanta played in cold, snowy conditions, and both teams were quite sloppy. Down by one at halftime, the Bills came out strong in the second half, rolling to a two-touchdown victory.
Due to the poor forecast and the officiating crew assigned to the game, I fully expected an onslaught of yellow flags. Land Clark was the referee, and before Sunday, his crew had called the third most penalties-per-game, at an average of 14 per week.
Fortunately for both the teams and the viewers, the game was played poorly but somewhat cleanly. The Bills had seven penalties accepted against them, just slightly higher than the 6.8-per-game they had heading into week 17. Their seven fouls totaled only 47 yards; two on offense for 10, four on defense for 32, and a special teams offside for 5 yards.
The Falcons had even fewer penalties. They had four accepted fouls for 27 yards. Two came on offense for 20, a big one on defense for 2 yards, and a special teams foul for 5 yards.
Land Clark’s most recent Bills assignment came in week 9 in Jacksonville. His crew called twelve penalties for 118 yards against Buffalo, each season highs. There were too many rulings to fit in the article in that game. In this one, there, fortunately, weren’t. I didn’t expect to write that sentence based on the recent game from Clark, but I have to admit, I thought he and his crew did an excellent job on Sunday.
Nevertheless, as there are every week, here are the five plays I’d like to talk about:
1: The Safety. Q1, 11:18.
A similar play – but with one major difference – happened to the Bills in week 8 against the Dolphins. In that game, Isaiah McKenzie attempted to field a punt but muffed it, and the ball scooted into the endzone, where it was recovered by his teammate Jake Kumerow for a touchback. McKenzie, and therefore the Bills, never actually possessed the ball on that play. So the play had not yet changed from a punt to a Buffalo possession. If the Bills never had possession of the ball, they could not concede a safety.
In this game, Marquez Stevenson did possess the ball before cornerback Avery Williams knocked it out. Like the earlier play, the ball rolled into the endzone, where it was coincidentally also recovered by Kumerow. But unlike the McKenzie muff, this was a Stevenson fumble. The Bills did possess the ball, and therefore they could (and did) concede a safety. It took a bit of time for the officiating crew to come to this conclusion, but they did, and it was correct.
2: Defensive Pass Interference, Atlanta. Q1, 3:29.
Firstly, I admire the aggressiveness of Sean McDermott here. The coach didn’t even consider punting down 2-0 with a 4th and goal from the 3. This left the ball in his best player’s hands. The Bills were in 11-personnel with Stefon Diggs outright. He ran a crossing pattern at the goal line, and Josh targeted him with his first read.
Before the ball could arrive, cornerback A.J. Terrell bumped Diggs to the ground. The contact was almost like a hockey hip check, with Terrell using his hands rather than his body to push Diggs off his route, perhaps hoping that the officials would ignore it. Fortunately, they didn’t (though they almost did)!
The responsibility for contact in the secondary lies with the three downfield officials and the two at the line of scrimmage. In this play, at the goal line, the field judge (green) and the back judge (light blue) did not call a foul. The line judge (yellow) was the one who threw the flag for defensive pass interference. This is speculative, but with how late his flag was, I suspect that Line Judge Brian Bollinger expected one of his crewmates to have the call; when they didn’t, he knew he had to.
This was the correct call, even if those brief seconds before Bollinger threw his flag caused a few dozen heart attacks at Highmark Stadium. It is perhaps the most consequential ruling for Buffalo since the missed defensive pass interference after the Buccaneers game. Thankfully, they got this one right.
3: No call for Unnecessary Roughness. Q3, 11:17.
On this 1st and 10, Josh Allen scrambled right and tried to run for a first down. He slid before the sticks and was contacted late by defensive back Kendall Sheffield. Down Judge Tom Stephan immediately threw a flag, but the crew decided to pick it up after a brief discussion.
I was not too fond of this ruling. Allen was sliding and hit late, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that there was a foul. The crux of the call centers was whether or not the crew felt that Sheffield “had committed himself, and the contact (to a sliding quarterback) was unavoidable.”
Professional football happens incredibly quickly. We’re talking about split seconds here. Did Sheffield have an opportunity to let up once he saw Allen slide? Maybe. But what’s frustrating here for me is how inconsistently this rule is applied to quarterbacks not named Josh Allen. Because of how effective he is as a runner, even when he does everything right by sliding, often the officials allow defensive players to contact him on the ground. They rarely allow this degree of contact on slower, smaller, and less effective runners this late.
4: Illegal Forward Pass, Atlanta. Q3, 3:54.
This play was another good call from Land Clark’s crew. On a 2nd and 5, quarterback Matt Ryan was flushed from the pocket and rolled right. As he approached the line of scrimmage, he noticed running back Cordarrelle Patterson over the middle. Ryan slipped past the line of scrimmage and delivered the ball to Patterson, who ran upfield for a huge 24-yard gain.
An illegal forward pass can only be called if every part of the passer is beyond the line of scrimmage. This was the case here. Matt Ryan was completely beyond the line, and a foul was correctly called.
Illegal forward pass infractions are administered five yards from the spot of the foul with a loss of a down. Ryan ran one yard downfield before throwing, so the officials granted him this yard, moved the Falcons back five, and took them down. 2nd and 5 became 3rd and 9. Ryan threw an incomplete pass on that play, and Atlanta was forced to punt. It’s a game of inches sometimes.
5: Taunting, Atlanta. Q4, 6:14.
This is one of the weirder plays I’ve seen in a while. Matt Ryan scrambled right on a 2nd and goal from the six and appeared to slide into the endzone for a touchdown. Ryan stood, looked at Jordan Poyer, and spiked the ball in his face. The quarterback was called for taunting, with the fifteen-yard penalty being enforced on the kickoff.
Then, as all scoring plays in the NFL is, the touchdown was reviewed. To prevent unnecessary hits to running quarterbacks, a quarterback is automatically ruled down when he goes to the ground, either by sliding feet-first or by diving forward. Think of it as the college rule; when sliding or diving, a quarterback is down regardless of whether or not he’s been touched by an opponent.
After review, Ryan was correctly ruled short of the goal line. The taunting foul still applied after the play was over. Instead of being enforced on the kickoff, it was enforced on the next play. Third down counted, and a 3rd and goal from the one were moved to a 3rd and goal from the 16. It was a catastrophic mistake from Matt Ryan, and it likely cost his team a touchdown, an opportunity to stay in the game, and perhaps a chance at the postseason.
I thought Land Clark and his crew called a solid game on Sunday, perhaps one of the best of Buffalo’s season. This is fairly ironic; I thought the two best games of the season had been called by Clark and Scott Novak, who officiated the Bills – Jets game in week 10. Ironically, the two worst officiated games of Buffalo’s season were called by the same crews; Clark’s in Jacksonville and Novak’s in Tampa Bay. That’s a pretty stark criticism for consistency in the NFL.
Next week, the Bills and Jets will see John Hussey for the final regular-season game of the year. His crew officiated Buffalo’s week one game against Pittsburgh. His crew averages the third-fewest penalties per game, with a mere 10.9. I’d expect that trend to continue in a win-and-you-win-the-East game for Buffalo. Go Bills.