The NFL features many tightly contested games, especially in the postseason, where one play can be the difference between winning and losing. These razor-thin margins make it crucial for referees to get every call correct, as it can directly impact the result of a game and the outcome of a team’s season.
While NFL referees generally do a good job, there have been several instances where a call has been so bad that it has outraged the fans.
Here are five such cases.
2021 NFL Wild Card Round - Cincinnati Bengals vs. Las Vegas Raiders
At the end of the first half, the Cincinnati Bengals had the ball in Las Vegas Raiders territory. Quarterback Joe Burrow rolled all the way out to the right sideline and fired a pass just before stepping out of bounds, which ended in a Tyler Boyd touchdown. The play was clean, but one of the refs made an error by blowing the whistle, thinking Burrow was out of bounds.
The play should have been ruled dead, but instead the officiating crew ruled that the whistle wasn't blown until after the touchdown. This was incorrect and the touchdown shouldn't have counted.
2019 NFC Championship - New Orleans Saints vs. Los Angeles Rams
Late in the fourth quarter of the 2019 NFC Championship Game, Drew Brees led the New Orleans Saints on a potential game-winning drive. He threw a pass into the end zone late in the game to Tommylee Lewis, and Los Angeles Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman clearly committed pass interference, but there was no flag on the play.
The Saints settled for a field goal and eventually went on to lose the game. Had pass interference been called, the Saints would have been able to run down the clock before attempting a game-winning field goal with no time left. Instead, they kicked a field goal to go ahead, leaving enough time on the clock for the Rams to drive down the field and kick a field goal of their own. This led to overtime, where the Rams won.
1999 Wild Card Round - Tennessee Titans vs. Buffalo Bills - The Music City Miracle
The Buffalo Bills kicked a field goal to take a 16-15 lead over the Tennessee Titans with 16 seconds remaining in the game during the 1999-2000 NFL Playoffs. The Titans returned the subsequent kickoff all the way for a game-winning touchdown, albeit in controversial fashion.
The Bills squibbed the kick, which was fielded by Lorenzo Neal, who quickly handed it to Frank Wycheck. He threw the ball all the way across the field to Kevin Dyson, who took it all the way to the end zone. The "lateral" looked like it could have been an illegal forward pass, but after a long booth review, it was not overturned as it was inconclusive.
2014 Divisional Round - Dallas Cowboys vs. Green Bay Packers
The Dallas Cowboys trailed the Green Bay Packers late in the fourth quarter of the Divisional Round game during the 2014 NFL Playoffs. Quarterback Tony Romo led the Cowboys on a potential comeback drive into Packers territory before one of the most controversial plays.
Romo lobbed a beautiful pass down the sidelines near the Packers' end zone, giving wide receiver Dez Bryant an opportunity to make a spectacular catch. Bryant did just that, leaping over cornerback Sam Shields.
After a review, the refs ruled that Bryant failed to secure the ball before hitting the ground. The NFL office admitted three years later that the referees got the call wrong.
2001 Divisional Round - New England Patriots vs. Oakland Raiders - The Tuck Rule
The Tuck Rule game is one of the most infamous in NFL history. The New England Patriots were trailing the Oakland Raiders with less than two minutes remaining in a 2001 Divisional Round game. Tom Brady was driving the Patriots down the field when Raiders cornerback Charles Woodson forced a fumble, which would have ended the game.
After a review, the referees overturned the call, ruling that Tom Brady had begun a forward motion and by the nature of "The Tuck Rule," deemed it an incomplete pass rather than a fumble. The Patriots went on to win the game and eventually the Super Bowl. Tom Brady recently admitted that the play "might have been a fumble."