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Buffalo Bills Rulings Review – Wild Card

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On a frigid evening in Western New York, the Buffalo Bills proved to the New England Patriots, to the media, and to themselves, that the division is going to run through Orchard Park for a very long time. At 8:15 pm on a Saturday night, the Bills and the Patriots kicked off a Wild Card playoff game at Highmark Stadium. At 9:04 pm, I checked my watch. Devin Singletary had just scored his first touchdown of the game. The score was 20-0. The game was over.

The matchup will forever be known as “The Perfect Game”, the first of its kind in NFL history. Buffalo had zero punts, zero turnovers, zero field goals, zero negative plays. They had more touchdowns than third downs. Josh Allen had more passes completed in the end zone than passes that hit the turf. It is one we will remember forever, for all the right reasons.

It’s also one that we will completely forget, at least from an officiating perspective. Brad Allen and his crew went virtually unseen for the duration of the game. There were only eight accepted penalties all night. Three went against Buffalo for a total of 47 yards; one on offence for 10, and two on defense for 37. New England had five accepted penalties against them, but for only 34 yards; three offensive penalties for 14, and two defensive penalties for 20.

Mixed Playoff Crews

As it was the second game of the playoffs, it was also the second game of the NFL’s mixed officiating crews, commonly referred to as “all-star crews”. Unlike the regular season, when the officiating crews remain consistent for the entire year, the NFL reworks its crews in an attempt to put its best product on the field. They do it for two reasons:

  1. If an individual official received a high grade but his or her crew did not, the individual can still earn playoff assignments as part of a mixed crew.
  2. If a regular season crew had a high grade as a unit, but a few crew-members had poor seasons, the league can eliminate these poorly-graded officials and replace them.

The goal is to put a better crew on the field. However, this occasionally comes at the expense of continuity and trust, which are built up over the course of the year. Sometimes this works; the Patriots-Bills game went off without a hitch. Sometimes it doesn’t; the Raiders-Bengals game was a disaster.

Regardless, it’s very hard to predict what kind of game a mixed officiating crew will have. Each crew has trends and tendencies from the regular season, but these aren’t all that useful in predicting how postseason games will go. The only thing we can do is use the trends of the crew chief – the referee – and assume the game will be called the way that he wants it to.

For the Buffalo Bills game, this meant looking at Brad Allen. I think he’s one of the better referees in the NFL right now. In November, his regular season crew officiated Buffalo’s Thanksgiving game against New Orleans. In that game, the Buffalo Bills had four penalties for 35 yards. Ironically, in last year’s postseason, his mixed crew called Buffalo’s wild card game against Indianapolis. Then, the Bills committed only two penalties for 7 yards.

Allen’s crews – both in the regular and postseason – tend to stay out of the way. The exact same thing happened on Saturday night, which is why my article is brief this week. I’ll only touch on three plays. Here they are:

1. No call for Offensive Holding. Q1, 2:57.

On this 2nd and 10, DE Deatrich Wise Jr. rushed off the left tackle and looked like he was about to get to Josh Allen. He beat Dion Dawkins, who was behind Wise as he pressured the quarterback. Just before Allen released his pass, it looked like Dawkins put his hand on Wise’s collar, preventing him from continuing his pass rush, and pulling him to the ground.

It looks like Dawkins pulls Wise to the ground illegally

Since Isaiah McKenzie made a great catch downfield, the replay focused more on the catch than the throw, so there was no replay of Wise’s pass rush. It’s really hard to measure the impact of the contact on Wise, and whether it was illegal. He may have flopped, or he may have been pulled down by a beaten left tackle. Live, I thought the Bills got away with a pretty impactful holding infraction. Instead of a 19-yard gain, it could have been a 2nd and 20, and because it occurred relatively early in the game, it may have impacted the outcome.

2. Illegal Contact, New England. Q2, 11:50.

Considering Brad Allen’s crew usually keep their flags in their pockets, I was surprised to see him announce a foul for illegal contact. This was only the second flag of the game, and illegal contact is an infraction that I didn’t expect to see from this crew, unless it was obnoxiously blatant.

When the CBS broadcast showed the replay, it turned out that this foul was obnoxiously blatant. 10 yards into Dawson Knox’s route upfield, linebacker Dont’a Hightower knocked him off his route. The contact was so significant that Knox fell to the ground. It was a textbook call; one that absolutely had to be made, no matter how committed to “letting them play” the crew had planned to be.

3. Offensive Pass Interference, Buffalo. Q3, 9:19.

On this 1st and 10, the Bills had Devin Singletary, Dawson Knox, and Cole Beasley lined up on the left side of the field. Singletary and Knox, the wider options, ran upfield, while Beasley ran into the flat. Josh Allen hit Beasley, and the slot receiver turned upfield for a comparatively modest seven-yard gain.

Unfortunately, upfield, Knox engaged his man before the ball arrived. Receivers cannot legally block more than one-yard upfield before the catch. He was correctly flagged for offensive pass interference.

Hilariously, it didn’t matter for this wagon of an offense. On the very next play, Allen hit Emmanuel Sanders for a 34-yard touchdown, and the Bills went up 33-3.

Conclusion

There really wasn’t much to talk about from an officiating perspective this week. It was a magical evening, with the team exorcizing 20-plus years of frustration by running up the score on a hated rival. The game felt like the younger generation’s 51-3. It was exceptional.

Next week, in the divisional round, the Buffalo Bills will head back to Kansas City, where they lost last year’s AFC Championship but won this year’s Week 5 Sunday Night Football game. Unlike the Patriots-Bills game, I’m truly excited to watch the officials work on Sunday. Both secondaries hold, push, and hit the opposing receivers a lot. The game will be impacted by how the officials analyze these plays.

In Week 5, the Bills beat up the Chiefs receivers, and deserved the numerous flags thrown their way… but their tactic threw off the Chiefs passing game. Last year, the Chiefs did it to the Buffalo Bills receivers, but many holding and illegal contact infractions went uncalled. In the Super Bowl, however, Kansas City employed this same strategy. Against Tom Brady’s Buccaneers, the Chiefs secondary got three flags for defensive holding and two for defensive pass interference.

John Hussey is the official for the Bills-Chiefs divisional game. In the regular season, his crew called the fewest defensive holding and defensive pass interference penalties in the NFL. I would expect this to continue, but to what degree? It will not be Hussey’s regular season crew. It will be a mixed crew and, therefore, much more challenging to predict. Obviously, we all just hope they will be consistent.

See you next week. Go Bills.

Blake Parnham is a sports official and a die-hard Buffalo Bills fan. Blake is an advocate for reducing the abuse directed at officials in amateur sport. On gameday, you can find him in his backyard at the Bills Helmet Bar, in Keswick, Ontario.

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