The New England Patriots should have had a touchdown with 4:11 left in Sunday's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Tight end Rob Gronkowski appeared to be across the goal line when he caught this pass from Tom Brady, but officials on the field missed the call and spotted the ball on the 1-yard line. That ruling, plus Bill Belichick's decision not to challenge the play, hindered New England's chances at a comeback.
The clip below shows the play live, and then cuts to a replay CBS showed of it a few plays later. (The second part of that sentence will be important later.)
What our clip doesn't show is what happened after the ball was placed at the 1. With the clock still running, Brady quickly got the Patriots to the line of scrimmage, but then stepped back and audibled, letting 37 seconds run off the clock in the process. New England's third-down pass was stuffed at the goal line. A Pittsburgh penalty on fourth down gave the Patriots an automatic first and the team then scored a touchdown on a Brady pass to Aaron Hernandez with 2:40 left in the game, more than 90 seconds after Gronkowski should have scored.
CBS didn't show a replay of the Gronkowski play until after the official touchdown because the Patriots weren't huddling and there wasn't time to wedge in the clip while Brady was barking signals at the line of scrimmage. (In retrospect, the network could have cut to the replay while Brady was wasting 37 seconds, but the production truck had no way of knowing the Patriots would take so long to snap the ball.) The lack of a replay played a major role in Belichick's decision not to challenge.
"I thought about it, but there was no evidence to say to challenge it," the coach told reporters after the game. "I mean I certainly couldn't see it from my angle, and I don't believe they replayed the play in the box."
Belichick's indecision was understandable. If he challenged and lost, he'd have wasted a crucial timeout that would have hurt New England's chances to kick off to Pittsburgh and get the ball back with reasonable time after a defensive stop. With third-and-goal from inches out, scoring a touchdown and saving the timeout seemed like a good move.
Or, at least, it would have been a good move had New England snapped the ball quickly. Once it became clear that the third-down play wasn't going to come quickly, Belichick could have hedged his bet and challenged the play. At that point, the risk/reward was titled in his favor: Either the play was reversed and New England had a touchdown with 4:11 left or it was upheld and Belichick stopped the clock and had time to put in the right package for the third-down play. Considering New England went for an onside kick after the Hernandez touchdown, challenging would have made even more sense.
It's all easy to say in hindsight. The best thing would have been for the correct call to have been made in the first place.