Shutdown Corner - NFL

It's fitting that the de facto NFC West championship game between the mediocre 7-8 St. Louis Rams and 6-9 Seattle Seahawks was defined by lousy officiating.

A baffling first-down ruling by the officials late in the fourth quarter gave Seattle a crucial first down and helped prevent a realistic comeback opportunity by the upstart St. Louis Rams. As a result, Seattle went on to win the game and became the first NFL team to win the division with a sub-.500 record:

As the replays (and the disbelief of Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth) show, the ball wasn't even close to getting to the first down marker. So how did officials award Seattle that crucial first down? By pulling the officiating equivalent of jumping the snap count.

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Referee Jerome Boger comes from behind the play, sees the ball sitting on the 28-yard line and immediately signals for a first down. What he didn't realize is that the ball hadn't been spotted yet and was at the 28 only because Michael Robinson(notes) slid ahead for an extra yard. If he had waited to make the call, he would have seen the ball at its official spot. Instead, he jumped the gun for no apparent reason.

In the next screenshot, you can see the head linesman (No. 22) reach over for the ball and place it at the proper spot (which he's marking by his left foot). By this time, Boger, who's still looking at the proceedings, has stopped signaling for the first down. Presumably, the chains are already moving.

The ball is correctly re-spotted. Boger (white hat) is still looking at the ball. No correction was made. 

By the time the error was recognized, it was too late for the Rams to challenge the call. (In a strange twist, the spot itself ended up being correct. It was the movement of the chains that was wrong. Would the challenge have worked in that case?)

It's all irrelevant now. While clearly hosed on this play, the Rams can't complain too hard. St. Louis finished the year at 7-9, lost to Detroit at home by 38 points and dropped the decisive game of its season to a team quarterbacked by a backup who looks like the world's most famous carpenter. In Sunday's game, the Rams dropped a few easy passes (a deep one by Danario Alexander(notes) stands out) and committed a number of silly penalties (including an offsides on a late fourth-and-3 which gave Seattle a first down). Still, that's some pretty awful officiating right there and it could have prevented a Rams comeback.

[Video: Ugly scene during Bengals/Ravens game]

At least there's hope in St. Louis. Coming from 1-15 to on the verge of making the playoffs is a great accomplishment. With Sam Bradford(notes) at the helm, the future it bright in the Gateway to the West ... as long as the ball is spotted correctly.

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