Sean Payton takes shot at NFL officiating office after pass interference call nearly dooms Saints

The city of New Orleans was on the verge of losing its collective cool on Sunday.

The very rule spawned by the missed pass interference call that cost the Saints a spot in last season’s Super Bowl gave the Carolina Panthers a late chance for a go-ahead touchdown in a game critical for playoff positioning.

But the Panthers couldn’t capitalize, and the Saints drove the field for a Wil Lutz game-winning field goal in a 34-31 victory to improve to 9-2 in the race for a first-round bye in the playoffs.

Controversy in game’s closing minutes

With the game tied at 31-31, the Panthers had the ball in the red zone with less the three minutes remaining. Quarterback Kyle Allen looked to wide receiver Jarius Wright in the flat on a third-and-3 pass from the 5-yard line.

Allen’s pass hit the ground, and the Panthers appeared on the verge of settling for a field goal with 2:21 remaining. But just as the Carolina kicking unit started to set up, head coach Ron Rivera threw a challenge flag.

Saints safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson had made contact with Wright during his route, and Rivera challenged that officials missed a pass interference penalty.

Did this warrant changing to pass interference?

Gardner-Johnson clearly made illegal contact with Wright while the ball was in the air, but the play didn’t appear to meet the high standards officials have set to overturn pass interference calls.

Never mind, though. Officials decided this play met the bar and changed the call on the field to pass interference.

Sean Payton not pleased

Saints coach Sean Payton let the NFL officiating office in New York know his feelings on the call in his postgame news conference.

“It wasn’t our best game,” Payton told reporters. “It wasn’t their best game, and quite honestly, it wasn’t New York’s best game.

“So it is what it is. I'm not going to get into it on the replay relative to the fouls, the changes that took place in the offseason, but sitting in on every one of those meetings, I don't know that it's exactly what we discussed where we are today with it. In fact, I'm pretty sure it's not. But we've got to be able to adjust to it.”

NFL’s explanation

NFL vice president of officiating told a pool reporter after the game that the decision to overturn the call was “clear and obvious.”

“After reviewing it, it was clear and obvious through visual evidence that the defender significantly hinders the receiver while the ball is in the air," Riveron said. "Therefore, it's defensive pass interference.”

Fans of several teams this season can point to “clear and obvious” evidence of pass interference calls that should have been overturned but weren’t upon review.

Saints fans were hot

After the call, the Panthers had a new set of downs at the Saints’ 3-yard line with 2:21 remaining as chants of “refs you suck” rained down from the Superdome crowd.

Carolina failed to take advantage of the opportunity. The Panthers ran for a loss on first down, threw an incomplete pass on second and watched Allen take a sack on third down to set up a go-ahead field-goal attempt from Joey Slye with 2:00 remaining, the same result had pass interference not been ruled.

The Saints nearly fell victim to the very rule spawned by last year's pass interference controversy in the NFC championship. (Derick E. Hingle/USA Today)
The Saints nearly fell victim to the very rule spawned by last year's pass interference controversy in the NFC championship. (Derick E. Hingle/USA Today)

Third missed kick from Slye dooms Panthers

But Slye didn’t convert. After missing a pair of extra points earlier in the game, his 28-yard field goal sailed wide right to give the Saints the ball with a chance to win the game.

Slye had already connected on field goals from 52 and 41 yards, but he missed three critical short kicks in the three-point loss.

New Orleans took advantage of its final chance, as Drew Brees led the Saints on a 65-yard drive to set up Lutz for a 33-yard-field goal.

Unlike Slye, Lutz connected on his kick as time expired to seal the Saints’ victory and save the NFL officiating office from a world of controversy.

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