Confused about a call -- or non-call -- while watching a 2019 NFL playoff game? Outraged by a missed penalty or left wondering why officials threw a certain flag?
Officiating controversies pop up quite a bit in the postseason (just ask the Saints), and they are often a little difficult to understand in the moment. Let's look at the biggest questionable officiating decisions of the playoffs and evaluate why they were called the way that they were -- and which were the correct calls.
Pass interference on Brock?
Titans-Chiefs AFC Championship Game, fourth quarter, 3:59
What happened: Titans defensive back Tramaine Brock Sr. was called for defensive pass interference on a third-down pass to Chiefs receiver Mecole Hardman. The flag led to a 41-yard gain and a first down as the Chiefs tried to run out the clock.
How it was resolved: Titans coach Mike Vrabel decided against challenging the call, even though it could have led to a reversal of a third-down conversion. The call stood.
Was it the right call? Vrabel made the right decision. The NFL reversed precisely zero defensive pass interference flags during the regular season in 13 reviews. To get the play reversed, there would have needed to be clear and obvious evidence that Brock did not significantly hinder Hardman from making the catch. Based on season-long trends, there was almost no chance the play would be reversed. Vrabel would have simply been handing over a valuable timeout had he challenged.
Watkins stays in bounds
Titans-Chiefs AFC Championship Game, third quarter, 12:58
What happened: Officials ruled a third-down pass to Chiefs receiver Sammy Watkins incomplete, saying he did not get his right foot in bounds after securing the ball. Chiefs coach Andy Reid challenged the play.
How it was resolved: The NFL overturned the call from its New York command center, noting correctly that Watkins' foot actually dragged along the grass in bounds before he stepped out of bounds. Dirt in the air confirmed it. The Chiefs were awarded a first down.
Was it the right call? This instance seemed to be precisely why replay is in place. Watching the play live, it was reasonable to think Watkins stepped out of bounds. But on the inevitable television replay, viewers at home could see pretty clearly that Watkins was in bounds.
The NFL, and all other professional leagues, have a choice. They can leave in place calls that can be easily exposed with today's television technology, or they can correct the call. Given the importance of the outcome of this game, the choice seems pretty easy.
Questionable spot on Graham's first down
Seahawks-Packers divisional-round game, fourth quarter, 2:00
What happened: Packers tight end Jimmy Graham was credited with a 9-yard reception to convert a third down that essentially sealed the game.
How it was resolved: The play was reviewed in the NFL command center, which has the option to review any appropriate call during the final two minutes of each half. The league looked at whether Graham was down by contact short of the line to gain but decided against re-spotting the ball. The Packers retained their first down.
Was it the right call? It is reasonable to think, based on the replays shown on the Fox broadcast, that Graham's elbow hit the ground when the ball was about a half-yard short of the line to gain. But there was never a surefire angle that showed it all happening in the same frame. The league has sometimes used various angles to piece together a reversal, but in this case it chose not to. Not even mysterious new footage that arrived after the original decision, forcing referee Clete Blakeman back to his replay station, could change the decision.
Should the final minutes of a playoff game be altered based on a pieced-together set of replays? If that approach is sometimes good enough for regular-season games, should it be good enough for the playoffs? Was the yellow line accurately depicting the line to gain? These are all fair questions. But in the end, replay should overturn obvious mistakes using clear and obvious visual evidence. That didn't exist here.
Was Jones across the plane?
Seahawks-Packers divisional-round game, second quarter, 9:49
What happened: Packers running back Aaron Jones was credited with a 1-yard touchdown run, apparently crossing the plane amid a pile of bodies.
How it was resolved: The call was upheld in replay, which provided no angle that showed where the ball was when Jones hit the ground.
Was it the right call? The replay also raised fair questions about how any official could have seen the ball at the moment it presumably crossed the play. The official on the far side of the field raised his arms for a touchdown with multiple players standing between him and Jones.
The play was similar to one during a Week 15 game between the Falcons and 49ers, when the wrong official made a touchdown call on the goal line that was ultimately overturned on replay. Seeing the ball in a crowd and making a call is exceptionally difficult, but as a general rule, officials must see the ball definitively at the right time in order to rule a touchdown. It's fair to wonder if that happened in this instance.
Hollister's fumble stays with the Seahawks
Seahawks-Packers divisional-round game, first quarter, 10:29
What happened: Seahawks tight end Jacob Hollister was ruled to be down by contact after an 11-yard reception. Packers coach Matt LaFleur challenged the call, saying Hollister fumbled and that Packers cornerback Chandon Sullivan recovered it.
How it was resolved: The NFL command center agreed that Hollister fumbled before he was down. But referee Clete Blakeman reported there was no clear evidence that Sullivan recovered the ball. The Seahawks retained possession and were credited with a first down.
Was it the right call? This was a frustrating but unavoidable decision. Replays showed the ball bouncing toward Sullivan, and he without question had the ball at the end of the play. But in order to overturn, there needed to be an angle that showed Sullivan definitively gaining first possession. We can infer and assume that he did, but the NFL standard requires possession to be in clear visual evidence. There was none.
Mahomes toes the line of scrimmage on TD
Texans-Chiefs divisional-round game, second quarter, 0:50
How it was resolved: Because it was a scoring play, it was automatically reviewed by the NFL command center in New York. The play was upheld as a score.
Was it the right call? Replays showed that the ball was past the line of scrimmage when Mahomes released the throw. But the NFL rule book is clear: A player's entire body must be past the line of scrimmage in order for it to be an illegal forward pass. And Mahomes' left foot appeared to be behind the line, based on the available replays. Plus, there was no angle that would suggest merit for a reversal. It was a good call both on the field and in replay.
A hard legal hit on Hill?
Texans-Chiefs divisional-round game, first quarter, 1:05
How it was resolved: Referee Shawn Hochuli's crew did not throw a flag. The play is not reviewable.
Was it the right call? This play is a really interesting example of how a defender can still obliterate a receiver on a pass across the middle, even within rule changes that have made dramatic attempts to protect receivers. Because he was leaping for the ball, Hill actually had defenseless player protection. But Reid avoided a penalty because he used his shoulder to hit Hill's torso, rather than using his helmet or hitting Hill's helmet.
Senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron, in a Twitter video, noted that Reid turned and made contact with his shoulder to Hill's midsection. It was violent -- and perfectly legal under NFL rules.
The non-call on a hit to Lamar Jackson's head
Titans-Ravens divisional-round game, second quarter, 8:21
What happened: Referee Bill Vinovich's crew did not throw a flag after Titans defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons threw his right shoulder and helmet into the head of Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson after he was down following a run.
How it was resolved: Jackson protested the hit, but the play isn't reviewable.
Was it the right call? Jackson was a runner and thus did not have protection as a quarterback, nor did he have protection as a defenseless player. Still, the NFL rule book considers it to be unnecessary roughness if a player is "running, diving into, or throwing the body against or on a runner whose forward progress has been stopped." That description certainly seemed to fit Jackson on that play. The Ravens went on to convert the first down on the next play, but a 15-yard penalty would have jump-started their drive into Titans territory. Ultimately, Baltimore settled for a 49-yard field goal from Justin Tucker.
Was the Jonnu Smith TD actually a TD?
Titans-Ravens divisional-round game, first quarter, 3:36
What happened: Titans tight end Jonnu Smith was credited with a 12-yard touchdown reception in the corner of the end zone, giving the Titans a 7-0 lead over the Ravens in the first quarter.
How it was resolved: The play was quickly reviewed by the NFL command center and upheld as a score.
Was it the right call? At issue was whether Smith had possession of the ball before rolling out of bounds. Replays showed that the Smith tipped the ball with his left hand, corralled it with his right hand and then landed on the ground with his left cheek -- no, not the one on his face -- in bounds. In terms of possession, the cheek is considered the same as getting a knee or elbow down. You might say that one cheek equals two feet.
Carson Wentz takes hit to the head
Eagles-Seahawks wild-card game, first quarter, 6:59
What happened: Attempting to evade the Seahawks' pass rush, Wentz was hit in the head by Seahawks defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. The hit occurred as Wentz was falling to the ground, and Clowney hit the Eagles' QB with his helmet.
How it was resolved: Referee Shawn Smith's crew did not penalize Clowney. Smith told a pool reporter that the contact was "incidental" and that Wentz hadn't given himself up and therefore wasn't eligible for protection as a defenseless player.
Was it the right call? There are three questions here. First, why did Wentz remain in the game for another series? He got up slowly from the hit and stumbled a bit, both concussion symptoms that merit immediate evaluation. The NFL will no doubt investigate if there was a breakdown in its concussion protocol.
Second, was the hit dirty and/or an attempt to knock out an opposing quarterback? Clowney said it was not, and he is the only person who knows what's in his heart. Objectively, however, helmet-to-helmet contact seemed unnecessary to ensure that Wentz was down.
Third, was the hit legal? There are two possible calls Smith's crew could have made. It could have deemed it unnecessary roughness against a player who had given himself up, which is usually what quarterbacks who dive to the ground are judged to be doing. Smith's crew also could have considered whether Clowney had violated the "helmet rule," which prohibits players from lowering their helmet to initiate forcible contact against an opponent. Either one would have cost the Seahawks 15 yards.
As noted, the contact was certainly unnecessary. Wentz didn't dive to the ground; Seahawks Bradley McDougald grabbed his ankle and tackled him. But I question why Clowney wasn't penalized for violating the helmet rule. The only explanation I can consider is that Smith's crew didn't consider the contact "forcible." But it carried enough force to cause Wentz to suffer a concussion.
No review of Vikings' game-winning TD
Vikings-Saints wild-card game, overtime, 10:40
How it was resolved: The NFL's officiating command center handles all reviews in overtime, meaning Saints coach Sean Payton couldn't challenge if he wanted to. Replays showed that the players engaged in some hand fighting before Rudolph pushed Williams away with his left hand as the ball arrived. Much as it did at the end of Week 17's game between the Seahawks and 49ers, the league chose not to review the play.
Was it the right call? This was a no-win situation. The NFL rule book prohibits a player from "initiating contact with an opponent by shoving or pushing off, thus creating separation." You could argue that's exactly what Rudolph did. But this is a rare area where the NFL's review of pass interference has been consistent. After adding three offensive pass interference penalties via booth review in the first two weeks of the regular season, the NFL did it only one more time thereafter.
Vikings fans should feel vindicated. The call that seemed to change the league's approach was a Week 2 decision to charge running back Dalvin Cook with OPI in the red zone against the Packers, overturning a touchdown in what was eventually a 21-16 loss.
False start should have negated Vikings fumble?
Vikings-Saints wild-card game, first quarter, 14:18
What happened: Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen lost a first-quarter fumble that the Saints recovered at the Vikings' 37-yard line.
How it was resolved: There was a review to confirm that Saints safety Vonn Bell stepped out of bounds before returning the fumble inside the Vikings' 10-yard line. But the real question, one that was not subject to review, was whether Vikings left guard Pat Elflein committed a false start, which would have negated the entire play.
Was it the right call? There is no doubt, based on watching the replay, that Elflein started his block early. But one of the little-known secrets of NFL officiating is that not everyone sees false starts the same way. The regular-season crew of Carl Cheffers, who was the referee assigned to this game, called a league-low 18 false start penalties in 2019. (Crews are mixed in the postseason.) That was less than half of those called by the NFL leader (Craig Wrolstad, 43). Some of that discrepancy, of course, is based on the teams involved in the games each official is assigned. But even something that seems as objective as a false start has some level of subjectivity.
Titans take two consecutive penalties on a punt
Titans-Patriots wild-card game, fourth quarter, 6:39
What happened: Titans coach Mike Vrabel, taking a cue from Patriots coach Bill Belichick, ordered his punt team to take a penalty for delay of game and false start while lined up for a fourth-quarter punt. Ultimately, the strategy helped the Titans drain nearly two minutes from the clock while protecting a 14-13 lead.
How it was resolved: This was the same strategy Belichick employed in Week 3 during a Monday night game against the Jets, noting that it was a loophole the NFL should probably close. Ravens coach John Harbaugh has used it as well, and Vrabel employed it in Week 17 against the Texans in addition to Saturday night's game. Guidance given to referees is to allow two consecutive "intentional" fouls, and then to throw a flag for unsportsmanlike conduct if they commit a third.
Was it the right call? You can bet that the NFL competition committee will propose to close this loophole during the offseason. Bleeding two minutes from a close game ultimately makes it less exciting for fans.
Bills receiver Cole Beasley awarded first down
Bills-Texans wild-card game, fourth quarter, 0:34
What happened: Beasley was given credit for a 10-yard reception on third-and-10 from the Texans' 39-yard line late in the fourth quarter, despite some question about where he should have been marked down. The play set up Stephen Hauschka's game-tying 47-yard field goal.
How it was resolved: Because there was less than two minutes remaining in the game, the play was subject to a booth review. Senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron upheld referee Tony Corrente's mark at the 29-yard line. In the meantime, the Bills -- who were out of timeouts -- sent their field-goal team onto the field in case the review pushed the spot back and Corrente started the clock with 21 seconds remaining. When the first down was upheld, holder Corey Bojorquez took the snap from center and spiked it, giving the Bills time to get their offense back on the field.
Was it the right call? This was a confusing sequence that seemed to ignore a 2018 NFL rule change regarding a player who dives head-first, as Beasley did as he was attempting to get a first down. According to the rule, players who do so are to be judged to be giving themselves up, and the ball should be marked wherever it was when the player is down, whether or not he has been contacted by a defender. When Beasley's left knee hit the ground, the ball was at the 30-yard line. It is a mystery why Riveron upheld the spot at the 29, which was just enough to earn a first down.
Second-half kickoff in Houston
Bills-Texans wild-card game, third quarter, 15:00
What happened: Corrente awarded the Bills a touchdown after Texans returner DeAndre Carter fielded the kickoff in the end zone and tossed it toward Corrente. Instead of catching the ball and allowing a touchback, Corrente stepped aside and allowed the Bills' Jaquan Johnson to fall on it for an apparent score.
How it was resolved: After an unusual intervention by two alternate officials assigned as part of postseason policy, Corrente reversed the decision to a touchback. Carter had made the "Iron Cross" sign, a signal to teammates that he will not attempt a return. Carter did not take the official move of taking a knee, but the NFL rule book gives referees authority to judge whether a player is giving himself up. Part of the criteria is a player "clearly making no immediate effort to advance."
Was it the right call? This was not a good moment for Corrente, who has been a referee since 1998. Not only did he overreact to what was an obvious attempt to take a touchback, but he also made the wrong ruling on a touchdown. If he was going to deny the Texans a touchback, the correct call would have been an illegal forward pass leading to a safety. On the ESPN broadcast, officiating analyst John Parry pleaded for the crew "to interject some common sense." Fortunately for everyone, it did.