<
>

Ed Hochuli did not beat the Patriots

Referee Ed Hochuli confers with other officials during the first half of the AFC Championship Game. Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY Sports

A lively social media discussion erupted late last week regarding a juicy but mostly irrelevant statistic.

Since 2001, the Denver Broncos were 6-0 in games refereed by Ed Hochuli. Their only loss dating back to 1999 came on Nov. 14, 1999 -- and there had been an unusual seven-year gap between Broncos games he worked.

Those games, of course, spanned different front offices, coaches, rosters and officiating crew members -- not to mention a total of 154 Broncos victories in games refereed by someone other than Hochuli. So while it's true that the Broncos are now 8-1 in their past nine games with Hochuli after defeating the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship Game, we hardly have evidence of, well, anything.

Sunday's game at Sports Authority Field was officiated cleanly and decisively, at least from this vantage point, and calls in the handful of gray areas fell both ways. Let's take a look at a few of them below before turning our attention to referee Clete Blakeman and Super Bowl 50.

Situation: Third down from the Broncos' 14-yard line with 2 minutes, 30 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter

Play: Pass from Tom Brady to Danny Amendola ruled incomplete

Analysis: This play was complicated by a questionable challenge from Broncos coach Gary Kubiak, who hoped to win a reversal to a catch, fumble and recovery by the Broncos. Here's what really happened.

The ball hit Amendola's stomach at the Broncos' 9-yard line, but he did not control it until it reached his waist. At that point, Broncos cornerback Kayvon Webster was already bringing him to the ground. So Amendola did not fit the NFL's definition of "becoming a runner" to be declared in possession. As he rolled over, Webster stripped the ball loose. That meant Amendola did not maintain control throughout the process of the catch, and the call was upheld as incomplete.

Kubiak was fortunate that was the case. A reversal to a catch almost certainly would have noted that Amendola's knee hit the ground before Webster stripped the ball. The Patriots would have been awarded a first down and the "fumble" would have been ruled to be after the play was dead. In this case, losing the challenge was Kubiak's best-case scenario.

Situation: Second down from the Patriots' 20-yard line with 9:56 remaining in the fourth quarter

Play: Broncos safety Shiloh Keo called for unnecessary roughness on a hit to Patriots receiver Julian Edelman

Analysis: Initial angles from behind indicated that Keo hit Edelman's back after an eight-yard reception. But a third angle confirmed that Keo's helmet hit squarely on the left side of Edelman's facemask at a time when Edelman qualified for protection as a defenseless receiver.

Edelman took only one step before the contact, which meant he had not yet become a runner and was not capable of avoiding or warding off impending contact. In those situations, the NFL prohibits contact to the head or neck area with the helmet, facemask, forearm or shoulder.

It was irrelevant that Edelman instinctively contracted his body, bringing his head in line with Keo's helmet. The NFL rule book explicitly states that "a player who initiates contact against a defenseless opponent is responsible for avoiding an illegal act." It goes on to state that the requirement is "irrespective of any acts by the defenseless opponents, such as ducking his head or curling up his body in anticipation of contact."

Practical or not, the NFL wants defenders such as Keo to put their head to the side and lead with their shoulders to avoid any chance of an unintentional shot to the head.

Situation: Second down from the Broncos' 28-yard line with 2:27 remaining in the second quarter.

Play: Peyton Manning's throw to Ronnie Hillman is ruled incomplete but reversed to a fumble, recovered by the Patriots, on review.

Analysis: What's notable about this reversal is that it was possible only because of a mistake Hochuli made in, yes, a Broncos game against the San Diego Chargers in 2008.

In that game, Hochuli initially ruled that Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler had thrown an incomplete pass at the Chargers' 1-yard line. Replay reversed it to a fumble, but the Chargers did not get the ball because NFL rules at the time did not allow for a post-whistle change of possession.

The following spring, the league tweaked its rules to allow for it if the recovery was immediate and indisputable. It became known as the "Hochuli Rule."

Patriots linebacker Jonathan Freeny picked up the ball after it got past Hillman. So when replay found that the pass did not go past the 28-yard line, the Patriots were awarded the ball. Had the "Hochuli Rule" not existed, the Broncos would have retained possession at the spot where the ball hit the ground.

And a few words on intentional grounding ...

I saw plenty of demands for intentional grounding penalties against Brady via social media Sunday, but I didn't see any plays that qualified.

The NFL rule book requires a penalty "if a passer, facing an imminent loss of yardage because of pressure from the defense, throws a forward pass without a realistic chance of completion. A realistic chance of completion is defined as a pass that lands in the direction and the vicinity of an originally eligible receiver."

Although Brady was clearly throwing the ball to avoid a sack in many of those situations, he had enough knowledge of the Patriots' route combinations to know where his receivers would be. "Vicinity" is a matter of judgment, but there seemed to be an eligible receiver close enough in each instance.

Some of you noted that Brady's throws did not always reach the line of scrimmage, but that requirement is only relevant in cases where the quarterback leaves the pocket and throws with no receiver in the vicinity. As long as he is out of the pocket in those situations, and the ball goes past the line of scrimmage, it is not intentional grounding. Having a receiver near the ball is the only requirement to avoid a penalty in passes thrown for the pocket.