The Steelers and Patriots faced off Sunday evening at Heinz Field in a game with massive ramifications. Pittsburgh had a chance to lock up the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs, while New England was looking to match its opponent’s record and grab the inside track on home-field for itself.
The game lived up to its billing as a clash of conference titans. After Pittsburgh went ahead 24-16, New England scored 11 straight points in the fourth quarter to go up 27-24 with less than a minute to play. But thanks to a brilliant catch-and-run from Juju Smith-Schuster, Pittsburgh surged to the Patriots’ 10-yard line, in position to reclaim the lead. Sure enough, Ben Roethlisberger dropped back and found tight end Jesse James for what seemed to be a go-ahead touchdown. Here’s the play:
Pretty straight-forward, right? James caught the pass and lunged forward, crossing the plane of the end zone with the ball as he fell to the ground.
But this is the NFL, where what seems like a catch is often not actually a catch. And so the referees reviewed the play and determined that despite what we all saw — that James plainly corralled the ball and reached forward, demonstrating that he had possession — the tight end “did not survive the ground,” meaning the pass was therefore incomplete.
Two plays later, Roethlisberger attempted a fake spike and wound up throwing the ball into Patriot arms, thereby handing New England a massive road victory.
Naturally, all the talk after the game centered on James’ touchdown that wasn’t. Quickly a consensus formed that, 1. Per NFL rules calling the pass incomplete was the right call — or at least a highly defensible one. 2. NFL rules are hopelessly silly.
That’s the rule and it’s a bright line. If you are going to the ground to make the catch you have to hold onto the ball when you land. He isn’t a runner until he completes the catch so goal line is not a factor. It’s an incomplete pass.
— Dean Blandino (@DeanBlandino) December 18, 2017
Yes, I know the rule and its implementation. The rule is dumb. My issue with that play specifically is he wasn’t completing a catch; he broke plane as runner with intent. Because if he would have been touched before, he would have been down and it a catch. Thus, catch completed.
— Dustin McComas (@DMcComasOB) December 18, 2017
You can’t blame the referees for implementing the catch rule as written in the rulebook. But you absolutely can blame the NFL for defining one of the sport’s most essential actions in a way that makes no sense to anyone. When your rules are this detached from reality, you need new rules.
Now the Patriots and Steelers both stand 11-3, and New England will likely secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, thanks in part to one of the NFL’s silliest, most brain-numbingly counterintuitive rules.