The New Orleans Saints were blatantly robbed. Period.
Let's make no mistake, there was certainly much more that contributed to the Saints soul-crushing 26-23 overtime loss to the Los Angeles Rams in Sunday's NFC Championship than just the officiating. A Drew Brees interception on the first drive of overtime that directly set up the Ram win. The inability of New Orleans to score touchdowns, instead settling for field goals, on their first two drives of the game. Particularly when given a short field after a Demario Davis interception on the Rams first drive, giving New Orleans the ball at the Los Angeles 16. The Saints were unable to run the ball with any effectiveness all afternoon, finishing with only 48 yards on 21 carries, against a team they bulldozed for 141 yards on the ground in November. The New Orleans defense, who for the most part played a good game against one of the most productive offenses in the league, surrendered a key touchdown drive with just two minutes left in the first half. That shortcoming was repeated with 1:41 to play, when the the Rams drove 45 yards to position themselves for the field goal to send the game to overtime. Prior to the Rams drive that forced the extra period, was some New Orleans offensive playcalling that came into question by some on their final drive of regulation. After a 43-yd. strike from Drew Brees to Ted Ginn Jr. that put the Saints well into the red zone with just two minutes remaining, coach Sean Payton called for a pass play on first down, instead of a run to force a Los Angeles timeout. The throw bounced at the feet of wideout Michael Thomas, stopping the clock. Two plays later, well, we'll get to that in a moment. The drive did end in a go-ahead field goal though, and epitomized the aggressive playcalling that Payton and Brees have shown throughout their career. Successful completion of either pass play with the strategy would have essentially ended the game for New Orleans, sending them onto their rightful place in Super Bowl LIII.
Instead of a game that should be remembered as a classic battle between two outstanding teams fighting for a championship though, this contest will go down in infamy for it's controversy. Let's call it for what it was: Robbery. On third and ten from the L.A. 13 with 1:49 remaining, Brees threw a pass down the right sideline intended for Tommylee Lewis, and if completed would have almost certainly clinched the game. Rams defensive back Nickell Roby-Coleman, by his very own admission after the game, not only interfered with Lewis to prevent the completion, but did so on a hit that was helmet to helmet . Despite two officials mere yards away and looking directly at the play (which, by the way, is supposedly their job!), neither threw a flag. The play was the textbook definition of both pass interference, as well as well as a helmet to helmet personal foul, something that the league claims to be concerned about. Roby-Coleman was responsible for another pass interference penalty early in the 4th quarter nearly as egregious. On a 3rd and 7 from midfield, he bear hugged Ginn at the first down marker to prevent a key conversion, a play that was not called. Bear hugs were only part of the issue that Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan had to face on the day. Jordan was mugged in such obvious manners on nearly every play that police reports could have been filed, yet not a single flag was thrown for holding. Acknowledging that holding is one of the most objective calls in the game, one must look at many of the offenses against Jordan in this game and wonder what is indeed holding then, if none of those were called. Conveniently overlooked on Brees' overtime interception was that he was very clearly hit in his helmet upon release; something that 100% of the time gets called for certain other quarterbacks in the league. Helmet to helmet contact may be the only way that Rams linebacker John Littleton knows how to tackle. In a league that claims to care about player safety (laughable), and throws flags for a mere brush against the headgear for some teams, Littleton had a number of clear helmet contacts that went uncalled.
All of this overshadowed some outstanding performances in a championship effort by both teams. Demario Davis, who finished with 14 tackles and an interception. Alvin Kamara again tortured Los Angeles, catching 11 passes for 96 yards. These players, along with a few others, should be the focus of conversations instead of what happened. The Saints and Rams waged war on each other, yet this game was instead decided by something darker. Forget referee "incompetence"; this stunk of blatant and obvious corruption. For too long supposed open interpretation of the game's rules, or extra enforcement of others for "player safety", or "enhancing the product on the field", have been nothing more than a farce fed to the public. The reality is that the league has given control of a game's outcome in the hands of the men wearing black and white striped shirts, often in the favor of certain teams. In doing so, what fans have long feared finally happened: the result of a championship game was almost solely decided by the criminal idiocy of the officials. At the very least, every referee on the field this past Sunday should not only be fired, but also heavily investigated. Even more at fault is the group that has allowed this to happen, the league office itself, which should also be investigated and scrutinized at the very highest level. Today's NFL at times more closely resembles the scripted outcomes of a W.W.E. wrestling event. While going as far as saying that professional football is scripted or rigged may be farfetched, it bears a much closer look at the people in power who have let the integrity of this product deteriorate.
The Saints and Rams are two terrific football teams that deserved the right to determine the outcome on the field, instead of the tainted outcome that was force fed to us all.