Brian Allee-Walsh

No-call in NFC title game will loom large well into the offseason for Saints, NFL

The “Minneapolis Miracle’‘ is one thing, blind injustice is quite another.

For the second consecutive January, the New Orleans Saints saw their quest for Super Bowl glory crushed in a cruel and unusual manner, leaving an entire organization, its fan base and city in shock, depressed and questioning the fairness of it all.

On Sunday, a season of trying to “Prove Them Right’‘ went up in smoke for the Black and Gold when NFL officials came up dead wrong at a critical time of the NFC Championship game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

In the end, the opportunistic Los Angeles Rams rallied from an early 13-0 deficit to post a stunning 26-23 win in overtime, pitting them against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LIII on Feb. 3 at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in downtown Atlanta.

Normally, I try not to factor officiating into my post-game analysis but a blatant “no-call’‘ made by referee Bill Vinovich’s officiating crew inside the final two minutes of regulation can’t be dismissed.

The collateral damage could be significant, not only for those officials who sat on their hands but also for NFL senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron. During a post-game call to Saints coach Sean Payton, Riveron acknowledged the officials were wrong and should have penalized the Rams.

“They blew the call,” Payton told reporters. “It’s a game-changing call — a tough one to swallow. My problem with it is, if we’re playing pickup football in the backyard, it was as obvious a call. How two guys can look at that and come up with their decision — we’ll probably never get over it.’‘

It should be noted that Payton sits on the league’s competition committee and, no doubt, will air his feelings at the appropriate time during the offseason.

To set the stage: With the game deadlocked at 20, the Saints faced a third-and-10 at the Rams 13. Quarterback Drew Brees threw a sideline pass intended for WR Tommylee Lewis at the 5-yard line. TV replays clearly showed Rams DB Nickell Robey-Coleman made early contact with the receiver and also wrongfully led with his helmet.

No flag was thrown, throwing Payton into a rage and sending him in search of nearby officials.

Instead of first-and-goal at the 5 with 1:45 remaining, the Saints were forced to bring on their field goal unit. Wil Lutz kicked a 31-yard field goal for a 23-20 lead with 1:41 left.

Truth be told, had a penalty been called, the Rams would have been in dire straits with only one timeout in hand. The Saints would have been in position to milk the clock, kick a chip-shot field goal at the very least and leave the Rams with few precious seconds remaining.

Instead, the Rams quickly moved into field goal range behind QB Jared Goff and Zuerlein kicked a tying 48-yard goal with 15 seconds remaining.

In overtime, the Saints won the toss but three plays into their possession, Rams DE Dante Fowler Jr. got too Brees, deflected the pass and DB John Johnson III cradled the fluttering ball while laying on his back for a game-changing INT at the Rams 46.

One first down later, Zuerlein drilled the winning 57-yard FG with 11:43 remaining in OT.

Truth be told, the Saints left points on the field and had several opportunities to win the game. In every game, there are four or five plays that ultimately determine an outcome. But in this case, a strong argument could be made that Sunday’s game came down to one game-altering play.

It turned out the visiting Rams had the help of an unwitting “12th Man” in Who Dat stadium.

Brian Allee-Walsh, a longtime Saints reporter based in New Orleans, can be reached at sports@sunherald.com.
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