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NEW ORLEANS — Sean Payton’s face was still flush with frustration when he grabbed a hold of the lectern.
Not nearly enough time had passed to temper the anger within him, and the postgame apologies offered by the NFL office had served to irritate him only more.
Someone had to answer for it all — the penalty flag that was never thrown, the game-changing momentum and the stolen victory. And in the aftermath of another crushing postseason blow, Payton wasted no time informing everyone who was to blame for the Saints’ season being over.
“They blew the call,” the New Orleans Saints head coach said, stating the obvious about the officiating crew in Sunday’s NFC championship game.
A missed penalty call late in regulation helped set the stage for a dramatic 26-23 overtime win by the Los Angeles Rams, who earned a trip to Super Bowl LIII, where they’ll face the New England Patriots.
And it left the Saints stunned beyond belief.
“Being that it happened right there, in front of the person who would be the one making that call, and everyone in the stands and everyone watching at home on TV, yeah, that makes it more difficult,” said quarterback Drew Brees, who completed 26 of 40 passes for 249 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.
The referees failed to throw a flag for blatant pass interference by Nickell Robey-Coleman late in the fourth quarter, even though the Rams cornerback collided helmet-to-helmet with Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis before the ball even got there. So, instead of the Saints receiving a first down and the chance to run some time off the clock, New Orleans was forced to kick a field goal. The Rams tied the game with 15 seconds left in regulation before icing it in overtime, thanks to a 57-yard field goal by Greg Zuerlein.
And it didn’t take long for Payton to reach out to the NFL.
“Just getting off the phone with the league office,” Payton said during his postgame news conference. ” … It was simple: they blew the call. [Senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron] said it should not have never been a call. Not only was it interference, it was helmet-to-helmet. They couldn’t believe it.
“We spoke initially, then I called to follow up,” he added, “And first thing Al said when I got on the phone was, ‘We messed it up.’ … There’s too much at stake. And, listen, it’s a hard job for those guys ‘cause it’s happening fast. But I don’t know if there was ever a more obvious pass interference call. Here is the NFC championship game. So, it’s a tough one to swallow.”
This victory should have been theirs. This impressive playoff run should have continued for another two weeks. The faithful fans, who made the Mercedes-Benz Superdome tremble so violently that pieces of the ceiling fell to the ground, and filled this city with an infectious spirit of superiority, deserved to claim what they believed belonged to them: a trip to Atlanta.
Even an electronic billboard on the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway echoed the sentiments of the Bayou: “We Were Robbed.”
In truth, a game the Saints had dominated for multiple quarters was squandered, not simply because of an official’s miscalculation, but because of their own inability to adjust, to regroup, to call better plays and to seize the moment. But while his players sat in stunned silence in their locker room, Payton was at the podium, detailing a miscarriage of justice.
“Man, there were a lot opportunities, though, but that call puts us on first-and-10 … it’s a game-changing call,” said Payton, who coincidentally is on the NFL’s competition committee. Payton later credited the Rams for making enough plays to win, “but for a call like that not to be made, man, it’s just hard to swallow.”
Even Robey-Coleman, the perpetrator of the penalty, acknowledged after the game that it was blatant pass interference.
The officiating crew, however, would not.
“It was a judgment call by the covering official,” referee Bill Vinovich said, via a pool report. “I personally have not seen the play.” He said it was not a reviewable play and when asked if the timing in the game had any impact on the no-call, he replied, “Absolutely not.”
If last year’s “Minnesota Miracle” was a dagger for New Orleans, Sunday’s officiating debacle was downright infuriating. And the league’s apology did little to assuage its anger.
“You can’t take it back,” Lewis said softly.
“We came here to win a game,” added wide receiver Michael Thomas, who was held to only four catches on seven targets for 36 yards and no touchdowns.
The magic finally ran out for the Saints. And in their dead-quiet locker room, no one was ready to accept the outcome. And neither was anyone else at the Superdome.
The anxiety was palpable inside the Bunker Club Lounge, where patrons and security guards and public safety officers huddled near TVs in the bowels of the stadium to watch the Saints grind out the ‘W.’
“Ain’t no way we’re not going to Atlanta,” one female officer said, smiling.
But as quickly as the stadium begun rocking with unbridled, cocky energy, the pivotal no-call by the referees sucked all of the life — and hope — out of the most ardent of fans.
“That’s that bulls—,” an inebriated Saints fan wearing an Alvin Kamara jersey cried out, as other fans stood with mouths agape.
Back on the field, Brees was attempting to get his offense to regroup in overtime.
“You move on to the next play,” said the former Super Bowl MVP. “You can’t let it bother you. It had no bearing in overtime. At least not for me.”
That, however, couldn’t be said for everyone else inside the Superdome.
“We had control for all 60 minutes and we ended up losing in the final overtime,” said Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan. “At the end of the day, we needed to take the field and create a big turnover.
“Was it out of our control? We let them get close to us. We ended up having 13-point lead at one point in time. You can’t ever let your foot off the gas.”
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