(CBS SPORTS) – A conference championship game between the two best teams in the NFC was overshadowed by the officials’ inexplicable decision to keep their flags in their pockets.
On Sunday, the Rams and Saints battled for the right to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl and for 58 minutes, the game lived up to the hype and promise … right up until the moment the officials became the story of the game by missing one of the most blatant pass-interference penalties you’ll ever see. To make matters worse, the missed call came with the score knotted up at 20-20 and the Saints threatening to put away the Rams for good. If the correct call had been made, there’s a very good chance the Saints would be en route to the Super Bowl and the Rams would be heading home to Los Angeles. Instead, the Rams managed to win 26-23 to advance to Super Bowl LIII.
With 1:48 remaining in the game, the Saints faced a third-and-10 from the Rams’ 13-yard line. Drew Brees dropped back to pass, spotted Tommylee Lewis running down the right sideline, and led Lewis toward the end zone. But Lewis never got the chance to make the catch, which would’ve given the Saints a chance to put the game away in regulation. He didn’t get the chance because Nickell Robey-Coleman tackled him before the ball arrived.
And yet, the officials did not flag the Rams for pass interference.
If the flag had been thrown, the Saints would’ve been granted a fresh set of downs near the goal line. They either could’ve scored a touchdown to take a seven-point lead or they could’ve ran more clock and forced the Rams to burn their remaining timeouts. Instead, due to the no-call, the Saints had to settle for a field goal with 1:45 remaining. Sure enough, the Rams took advantage of an extra opportunity they probably didn’t deserve. With plenty of time to journey into field-goal range, they kicked a 48-yard field goal to send the game into overtime.
In overtime, the Rams picked off Brees on the opening possession of the extra period. Greg Zuerlein proceeded to drill a 57-yard field goal to send the Rams to the Super Bowl with a 26-23 win. Give the Rams credit for battling back after falling into a 13-0 hole in the first quarter. Give Jared Goff credit for getting the Rams into field-goal range to tie the game. Give Zuerlein credit for making two long field goals in two high-pressure situations.
But all of it was only possible because of a blatant no-call. Immediately after the game, Sean Payton spoke to the league office about the missed call.
It’s a blatant no-call, we should add, that came via an officiating crew that includes referee Bill Vinovich. Before the game, Rams fans started a petition to remove Vinovich from the game, claiming that Vinovich has been biased against the Rams in games past. On Sunday, the Rams (seven penalties for 64 yards) were penalized more frequently than the Saints (three penalties for 20 yards), but they received the biggest boost from the officials in the waning moments of regulation.
Meanwhile, the Saints’ season has, once again, ended in absolute heartbreak. A year after falling victim to one of the most miraculous touchdowns in NFL history, they fell victim to one of the worst missed calls in NFL history.