NEW ORLEANS — It was going to happen just like this eventually. Every week of every football season brings an egregious call or three from across the league, the kind for which the NFL must apologize a few days later — as if there’s any consolation in that.
But you get one stolen from you in Week 6, you can come back from that.
You get one stolen from you in Week 20 …
Well, your dreams die. Your season ends. Your jacked-up stadium turns silent in an instant, but not before the partisans paste the referees with bile, spittle and slander — all of it absolutely well-earned.
And make no mistake: The refs stole this NFC Championship from the Saints. No disrespect to the Rams, who overcame an early 13-0 hole to make a wonderful game of this and who made the key play in overtime when safety John Johnson intercepted a Drew Brees pass on his back — yes, on his back — before kicker Greg “The Leg” Zuerlein boomed a clinching 57-yard field goal that might have been good from 77.
But by the time Zuerlein sent the Rams to Atlanta and Super Bowl LIII with a 26-23 win, he should’ve been back in a quiet visiting locker room comforting his teammates. The Superdome should have been a deafening madhouse of sound and fury, the 73,028 in the house celebrating a second trip to the Big Game.
But that’s not how it worked out.
Because the refs got in the way. They stole this one as surely as if they’d walked into a bank like Willie Sutton. It wasn’t an anonymous Week 6 game this time. It was the NFC Championship. And in a time when refereeing has never been more in the spotlight and more under the gun, this is one that will be remembered forever.
And this time, the league didn’t even have to wait a few days to cop to the officials’ incompetence. This time, they talked to Sean Payton right after he walked off the field.
“Just got off the phone with the league office,” Payton said. “They blew the call.”
Payton’s expression mirrored that of his team and his fans and his city: Thanks for nothing, league office.
The call was actually a non-call — and let’s really describe it properly: the most egregious non-call, perhaps, in NFL history. The Saints were driving for a go-ahead score late in regulation, facing third-and-10 from the Rams’ 13 when with 1 minute and 48 seconds left, Brees dropped back and threw toward his wideout, Tommylee Lewis. But before Lewis could catch the ball, a beaten and desperate Rams cornerback named Nickell Robey-Coleman did the only sensible thing he could do: He ran into Lewis.
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As an added bonus, Robey-Coleman also made helmet-to-helmet contact with Lewis.
With the two penalties, the Saints would have been set up first-and-goal inside the 5. The Rams had only one timeout, so the Saints could have taken three knees, run about 82 seconds off the clock and would have kicked the chip-shot go-ahead field goal with about 25 seconds left in the game.
Except the most obvious pass-interference call of the year went uncalled. And so did the helmet-to-helmet. The Saints kicked the field goal with 1:45 left. The Rams got the ball back with 101 seconds left in the game and needed only 82 of them to drive for the field goal that forced overtime.
“I don’t know if there was ever a more obvious pass interference call,” Payton said.
We can save him the time and the energy and the research: There has not.
“That’s tough to swallow,” Brees said, “when everyone in the world saw it.”
Because Brees oozes class, he also added, “It had no bearing on overtime, at least on me.”
It was a nice sentiment. Brees knows the Saints, who made it look easy in the first quarter, did very little across the final three.
Usually, when a referee’s call decides a game, there is at least a corresponding burden on the shoulders of the losing team. A few weeks ago, St. John’s was robbed of a win at the end of a basketball game with Seton Hall by a terrible call, but St. John’s had also allowed Seton Hall to erase a late 10-point lead and missed some key free throws.
Same with the Saints. And blaming referees is almost always a loser’s lament. Except when a call this terrible comes in an elimination game. Then, it’s larceny. The NFL had been begging for something like this for years as the quality of its officiating eroded amid weekly yelps and protests. It was bound to happen sometime, to some team.
It happened to the Saints. They were robbed.