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Juicy but irrelevant: Broncos 5-0 in games with Super Bowl referee Clete Blakeman

Super Bowl 50 referee Clete Blakeman's crews have ranked in the bottom third of penalty frequency in four of his six seasons as a ref. Ron Chenoy/USA TODAY Sports

Let's dispense with the juicy stuff before we get to the meat of this report.

Clete Blakeman is the NFL's designated referee for Super Bowl 50, a game between the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers. It is an undeniable fact that Blakeman has been the referee for five Broncos games since he became a referee in 2010, and that the Broncos are 5-0 in those games -- including one in the 2013 divisional playoffs.

It's also impossible to dispute that Super Bowl 50 will be the second consecutive game the Broncos have played with a referee under whom they have an extended glistening record. (They are now 7-0 in games with Ed Hochuli since 2001 after their victory in the AFC Championship Game.)

Of course, the Broncos won lots of games with any number of referees during that period. Their 62-34 regular-season record since 2010 is the NFL's third best. And in reality, you can find dramatic evidence of an advantage for either team if you try hard enough.

In the case of the Panthers, who are 2-2 in Blakeman's games, you can go back to Nov. 18, 2013.

You might remember that night. The Panthers held a 24-20 lead against the New England Patriots when -- as time expired -- quarterback Tom Brady threw a pass toward tight end Rob Gronkowski in the end zone. Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly bear-hugged Gronkowski as safety Robert Lester intercepted the pass. Flags flew from the Blakeman crew. The call: pass interference on Kuechly.

The Patriots were set to have one play from the 1-yard line to win the game before Blakeman called an officials' huddle. Moments later, he picked up the flag and announced the game was over without further explanation. Brady famously chased him off the field, shouting, "Clete! Clete!" to no avail.

Speaking later to a pool reporter, Blakeman said the ball was uncatchable and the contact was legal. The NFL supported the judgment call but ultimately asked officials to provide fuller explanations in their penalty announcements when possible.

You might remember Blakeman for that sequence. Or perhaps you were first introduced to him last month when he decided on a "do-over" after the first coin toss prior to overtime in the divisional playoff game between the Arizona Cardinals and Green Bay Packers.

But as Super Bowl 50 approaches, the most relevant way to view Clete Blakeman is as an efficient and decisive game manager -- for referees, that's a good term -- who is almost always on the low end of leaguewide penalty totals.

The chart, culled from data provided by Henry Gargiulo of ESPN Stats & Information, breaks down two metrics for Blakeman's six seasons as a referee. His 2015 regular-season crew ranked No. 12 among the NFL's 17 crews in total penalty calls; Blakeman's crews have ranked in the bottom third of penalty frequency in four of his six seasons as a referee.

As a result, Blakeman's games have moved relatively quickly, finishing below the average NFL game time in four of his six seasons. As recently as last season, his games were the fourth quickest in the league on average.

(NFL game times can vary by as many as 15 minutes per referee crew. In 2015, for example, games that John Parry refereed took an average of 3 hours, 5 minutes. On the other end of the spectrum, Bill Vinovich's games averaged 3:19.)

Here are a few other game-related facts to know about Blakeman:

  • His regular-season crew called 38 offensive holding penalties, the second fewest in the NFL. That trend extended into the divisional playoff round, where Blakeman's crew for the Packers-Cardinals game called only one holding despite aggressive blocking from both sides.

  • His regular-season crew aggressively officiated pass defense, calling 43 penalties for defensive pass interference, illegal contact and defensive holding. That ranked as the fourth most in the league.

Blakeman will work the Super Bowl with a different crew, of course, one made up of officials from the top-graded tier at their positions throughout the league. As a result, some of those trends might not hold precisely for Super Bowl 50. I've always felt, though, that the referee sets the tone for any crew and uses his base of experience to do so.

Neither the Panthers nor the Broncos struggled with penalties this season. The Panthers committed the sixth fewest, and the Broncos were tied at No. 16. When you combine that performance with a crew headed by Blakeman, the NFL has a pretty good chance of producing a Super Bowl that stars the players and coaches -- and not the officials.