We've had a season of debatable calls and obscure rulings here in the NFC North, and each Week 15 game provided us new material. In order of occurrence:
The Detroit Lions were the beneficiaries (for once) of a critical decision midway through the fourth quarter of their eventual 23-20 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. On a third-and-goal from the Lions' 2-yard line, the Bucs appeared to have scored a go-ahead touchdown on Josh Freeman's 2-yard pass to tight end Kellen Winslow.
But referee Terry McAulay's crew called Winslow for offensive pass interference, nullifying the touchdown and ultimately forcing the Bucs to settle for a game-tying field goal. It was Winslow's second such penalty of the game, a fact that suggests McAulay's crew was either aware of a tendency to push off or had been "encouraged" to look for it by the Lions' bench.
Across the league, offensive pass interference has been called 75 times over 15 weeks. That averages out to five per week, or less than one per game. Winslow is the only player to have more than one in the same game, according to ESPN Stats & Information's penalty database.
The earlier call, in the first quarter, came after a relatively mild push on middle linebacker DeAndre Levy. The second was an odd-looking play from the start. Winslow did not appear to be the first read, and when Freeman finally lofted him the ball, Winslow literally boxed out Lions safety C.C. Brown, never leaving his feet while making the catch.
Replays showed Winslow put both hands on Brown's chest to achieve a level of separation just before the catch. Although Winslow argued vociferously, I had no beef with McAulay's call.
A few hours later, the Green Bay Packers were hoping to take a 10-point lead over the New England Patriots at halftime when they allowed an epic 71-yard kickoff return to offensive lineman Dan Connolly. Almost immediately, you began filling the mailbag with complaints about a number of purported illegal blocks on the play.
I saw two on the TV replay. One I would consider critical and the second relatively moot.
The first came just as Connolly broke open the return at the Packers' 40-yard line. I immediately noticed Packers fullback Quinn Johnson barreling into linebacker Diyral Briggs, creating a collision that gave Connolly 30 yards of open field.
At the end of the return, Patriots running back Sammy Morris shoved place-kicker Mason Crosby to the ground from behind. That could have been ruled a penalty as well. But assuming Hochuli ruled it a spot foul, the Patriots still would have assumed possession inside the Packers' 15-yard line.
Bears rookie defensive end Corey Wootton blew past Vikings left tackle Bryant McKinnie. Wootton grabbed Favre and flipped him to the frozen turf at TCF Bank Stadium. At some point, the ball trickled loose. Should it have been a fumble as well as a sack?
I looked for the two obvious signs on the replay: When did referee Carl Cheffers blow the whistle? And was Favre down when he fumbled?
On the first issue, you can hear a whistle blowing almost simultaneous to the moment when Wootton grabbed Favre. Whether it was early or not, the play was officially over when the ball fell to the ground. Had the whistle blown later, however, it almost certainly would have been ruled a fumble. Favre's left knee landed on Wootton's left knee, meaning he was not down when the ball squirted loose.
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