NEW ORLEANS — The first thing Nickell Robey-Coleman heard — other than his head smashing into the helmet of New Orleans Saints wideout Tommylee Lewis — was the collective explosion from the lungs of the crowd inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
The Los Angeles Rams cornerback had left his coverage, laid a hit on Lewis and figured that regardless of the penalty, he had at least prevented a certain touchdown.
“I just heard the crowd go crazy and I was like, ‘Aw, this is a flag,’” Robey-Coleman said roughly one hour after the play that arguably eliminated the Saints from a Super Bowl appearance. “… I didn’t look back at the ball. I didn’t play the ball.”
It was third-and-10 at the Rams 13. New Orleans was poised to take a lead on a field goal or touchdown. And the Rams had blown coverage and left Lewis open on the sideline. So Robey-Coleman broke off Saints running back Alvin Kamara to lay a desperate hit and hope to salvage something. He made helmet-to-helmet contact and got to Lewis far too early, leading Saints coach Sean Payton to sprint down his own sideline toward the play screaming for the call.
Inexplicably, no flag came, leaving Payton to yell at an official on the sideline “That’s a Super Bowl call!”
Payton was right. It was a Super Bowl call. One that went in favor of the Rams for reasons that remained nebulous to everyone in the building. Including the guy at the center of it. An hour later, Robey-Coleman still wasn’t entirely sure why he had gotten away with it. Not that he cared.
“Saints fans, I’m sorry but it is what it is,” he said. “You heard what the ref said. The ref said it was incomplete. Respect the call.”
Initially, Robey-Coleman suggested the referee had “low key” told him the pass was tipped. But later, he admitted he heard that suggestion from his teammates — not an official. In truth, all he really knew was a bad play was forgiven and the Rams were more than happy to benefit. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky and not question some divine intervention (or poor eyes from officials, who explained the lack of a flag as a “judgement call”).
“[I] came to the sideline, looked at the football gods like, ‘Thank you. Got away with one tonight,’” he said. “It is what it is.”
Asked if he wanted to see the video replay of the call, Robey-Coleman could only grin and refuse.
“No, we do not want to see the replay,” he said with a laugh. “Let’s just get on the bus and get on the plane.”
Later, Robey-Coleman did see the replay.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “That was [pass interference].”
That admission of relief and glee was as close as the Saints were going to get to an apology from the Rams. And Robey-Coleman was probably more generous than his teammates would have liked. Behind him, Los Angeles cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters were verbally packing as much salt into the Saints’ wounds as they could muster.
“The fans are maaaaaaaaad!” Talib said with a smile.
“Mad than a bitch,” Peters replied. “They still out there mad, too.”
Asked about the penalty that may have changed the game, Peters waved it off, pointing out that Payton called a pass on first down at the Rams 13-yard line with 1:58 left to play. It resulted in an incompletion that stopped the clock and kept the Saints from chewing up valuable time. In theory, New Orleans could have run the ball three straight plays and kicked a field goal with almost no time left on the clock, a strategy that would have given the Saints a 23-20 lead. Instead, Payton threw it one first down, ran it on second and then threw it on third, leaving 1:45 left for the Rams. And that made all the difference.
“We ain’t gonna complain about no pass interference because bad calls get called every day in this game,” Peters said. “Just me knowing football, if they coach run the ball on first and second down, they probably ain’t even going to be sitting here talking about this. Incomplete on first down, you give us the ball back. You give [Rams coach] Sean McVay the ball back with 1:43 or something, we’re going to score or we’re going to kick the field goal. We got it done.”
“When you catch breaks in this league, you’ve got to take advantage,” Robey-Coleman added. “This league is too hard to get a break and you not take advantage of it. This league, the door open and the door close just that quick. … You’ve got to bite in [when you get a break]. You’ve got to sink your teeth in at that point.”
The Rams did, much to the Saints’ dismay. And now Los Angeles advances to the Super Bowl with the help of a call that will live on in New Orleans infamy. As Robey-Coleman put it, they got away with one. And they don’t really care who knows it.
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