NFL Nation: John Parry
Here's what I can tell you as we approach midseason: While most crews have handed out a relatively similar amount of penalties on a per game basis, there is a pretty big gap between the most and least active referees.
The chart breaks down all penalties, both accepted and declined, for each referee this season. Keep in mind that the referees have worked anywhere between one and seven games this season as part of the NFL's rotation system, so perhaps the most significant number is the percentage of penalties per game.
When viewed that way, you'll note the difference between referee John Parry (18.6) and, say, Peter Morelli (11.5) and Clete Blakeman (10.6). But what does that mean?
First, it's important to repeat that penalty totals shouldn't be correlated with the quality of official. Second, it's worth considering that some referees could have been assigned to more games with penalty-prone teams than others.
If that's the case, however, you would expect the numbers to even out over the course of the season. Otherwise, a continuing discrepancy would suggest, in fact, that some referees and their crews were more likely to call penalties than others this season.
The answer is a lesson for all of us on a nuanced NFL rule. A review of the league's definition for false starts notes that one of two requirements must be met to require a penalty. Here is how Rule 7, Section 4, Article 2 reads:
"It is a False Start if the ball has been placed ready for play, and, prior to the snap, an offensive player who has assumed a set position charges or moves in such a way as to simulate the start of a play, or if an offensive player who is in motion makes a sudden movement toward the line of scrimmage. Any quick abrupt movement by a single offensive player, or by several offensive players in unison, which simulates the start of the snap, is a false start."
Because the Seahawks were in punt formation, none of the players on the line was in a set position -- i.e., with a hand on the ground in a three-point stance. (In a later item, the rule book notes: "It is a False Start if an interior lineman … takes or simulates a three-point stance, and then changes his position or moves the hand that is on the ground.")
So the first requirement was not fulfilled Sunday night. And while the players were moving, no one made a "quick" or "abrupt" movement as if they were trying to simulate the snap. They were simply standing up and waiting for what they thought was a stoppage called by an official.
So what about illegal motion? Are players really allowed to stand up at the snap like that? Here is what the rule book says about illegal motion: "No player is permitted to be moving toward the line of scrimmage when the ball is snapped."
Standing up is not the same as moving toward the line of scrimmage. So I think we're back to where we started: The Seahawks really didn't have recourse on the play.
Stopped on their opening possession, the Seattle Seahawks lined up to punt at the San Francisco 49ers' 49-yard line. As they got set, the screech of a whistle -- a noise, not this -- could be heard over the NBC broadcast. Multiple Seahawks players seemed to hear it as well, because six of them stood up or otherwise indicated they thought referee John Parry's crew had blown the play dead.
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll was livid on the sideline. What was he upset at? Did he think the whistle came from an official? What did he want Parry to do? What, if anything, does the NFL rule book have to say about such instances?
The truth appears simple. While the rule book stipulates how to handle an inadvertent whistle from an official -- the play is ruled dead -- there is nothing that applies to the reaction of players to noise from the stands. The closest thing is Rule 13, Article 7, which speaks to a "palpably unfair act by a non-player." (The common dictionary defines "palpably" as "easily perceived or obvious.") In such cases, the referee is to consult with the crew and "make such ruling as he considers equitable."
Parry didn't think that a fan using a noisemaker qualified as an obviously unfair act, and I don't think any of us would, either. A better example might be a fan running onto the field and disrupting a live play.
Once Parry confirmed that no one from his crew had blown a whistle, the play correctly stood as a blocked punt. The Seahawks were fortunate that the 49ers did not score on the play or the ensuing possession.
The folks at Zebras.com have an in-detail look at the rules that could conceivably apply here and explains why they ultimately don't. The play got Carroll fired up, and he was still talking about it in his postgame news conference, but Parry's crew appeared to do everything right. It was just a mistake by more than half the players on the Seahawks punt team.
Three plays from Week 1 help illustrate our continuing state of disorder, one that first became evident when Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson lost an apparent game-winning touchdown in 2010 after leaving the ball on the ground to go celebrate. As we (thought we) learned at the time, the NFL rulebook includes this note in Rule 3, Section 2, Article 7:
"A player who goes to the ground in the process of attempting to secure possession of a loose ball (with or without contact by an opponent) must maintain control of the ball throughout the process of contacting the ground, whether in the field of play or the end zone. If he loses control of the ball, and the ball touches the ground before he regains control, there is no possession. If he regains control prior to the ball touching the ground, it is a catch, interception, or recovery."
Johnson lost another touchdown Sunday, against the Minnesota Vikings, after replay officials and referee John Parry ruled -- correctly -- that he did not control the ball through the entire process of the catch. When you watch the replay, you see Johnson gather Matthew Stafford's pass in a firm grasp with two hands and with two feet on the ground at the 1-yard line. He dove across the goal line, but the ball trickled out when his arms hit the ground.
Regardless of what you think about the rule, Parry's decision made sense given its wording -- at least until Sunday night. In the third quarter at AT&T Stadium, New York Giants receiver Victor Cruz was awarded an 18-yard touchdown catch under what seemed to be identical circumstances to the play ruled incomplete a few hours earlier in Detroit.
Cruz made a leaping grab at the 1-yard line, turned toward the end zone and stretched the ball with his right hand over the goal line. When the ball hit the ground, it squirted out of his hand. Cruz did not regain possession.
What was the difference between Cruz's touchdown and Johnson's incompletion? I suppose you could argue that Cruz wasn't going to the ground as he made the catch. His dive over the goal line was a separate action, coming after he technically gained possession.
Regardless, the rule put referee Tony Corrente in a tough spot, and it's not at all clear that he made the right call. Former NFL vice president of officiating Mike Pereira, now a Fox Sports analyst, tweeted this week: "The Cruz catch was ruled complete. It should not have. Ball came lose when he hit the ground. He did not complete the process."
In the aftermath, no one from the Dallas Cowboys complained about the call, from what I could tell. The knowledgeable announcing duo of Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth didn't immediately question it, either. The play passed the smell test, as did Johnson's, and applying the "process rule" seemed artificial and awkward to the layman.
Parry initially ruled the play a fumble and awarded possession to the Vikings on the recovery. Upon reviewing the replay, however, Parry noted correctly that the ball crossed the plane a moment before Sanford dislodged it. In such situations, the play is dead the moment the ball crossed the plane. The ruling is a touchdown. Nothing that happens afterward matters at all.
So why is the Bell play dead the moment the ball crosses the plane, while the Johnson play is not? That question has always bothered me. It's as if the NFL has two separate rules for possession in the end zone, one for a running play and one for the pass.
The clinical answer is that the league does not consider Johnson to be in possession of the ball as he falls to the ground. He can have the ball firmly in grasp, with two feet on the ground, but if he is falling, the process rule means he must have possession until after he has landed.
Only then, according to the rule, could Johnson be in possession and be awarded the touchdown that Bell got by crossing the plane long before he fell to the ground and an instant before he fumbled.
I can understand that explanation in a vacuum, but too often this rule leads to decisions that don't pass the obvious smell test. The league considered but ultimately abandoned attempts to rewrite the rule a few years ago. Here's hoping the smart men on the competition committee revive those discussions.
Johnson had a touchdown nullified by the complete-the-process rule in the 2010 opener, turning a potential Detroit win into a loss. On Sunday, the results of the lost touchdown were not quite as dire as the Lions beat Minnesota 34-24.
Johnson thought he had scored and said he felt he caught the ball, had his feet touch down and then dove into the end zone. Officials disagreed, reviewing the play and saying he didn’t complete the process of the catch.
After the game, referee John Parry said whether or not Johnson had already crossed into the end zone did not matter in this case and that he saw the ball move without Johnson having control.
“A player that is going to the ground on his own, which Calvin was on that play, must possess and maintain the possession of the football throughout the entire act of the catch,” Parry said. “The catch did not end in that scenario. When the ball hit the end zone, the ball moved. It rotated. So he didn’t maintain possession of the football.”
It was one of many wacky things which happened in the first half for the Lions. Johnson also just missed on another touchdown when his second foot barely touched down out of bounds. Sam Martin bobbled a snap, costing the Lions a field goal. A DeAndre Levy interception return for a touchdown was brought back by a Ndamukong Suh low block penalty. Louis Delmas received a taunting penalty. Joique Bell almost had a touchdown wiped out because the ball popped loose as he dived over the pile, although he crossed the goal line first.
Brandon Pettigrew had a ball cleanly stripped. And on the Vikings’ first offensive play, Adrian Peterson scored a 78-yard touchdown.
Lions coach Jim Schwartz, though, liked the way his team responded in the second half when it scored touchdowns on its first two possessions.
“We had setbacks that we put on ourselves,” Johnson said. “That’s all it was.”
The most noticeable of all, though, was Johnson’s inability to complete the process. Again.
“Typical. It would happen to him,” quarterback Matthew Stafford said. “He had a great game. If you keep those two catches, the guy comes away with two touchdowns and another 50 yards.
“The guy, he’s the best in the game.”
Officials have called only eight penalties for holding on offensive plays during the postseason, six of them against the NFC champion New York Giants. Three of the six were against Chris Snee, with two against David Baas and one against David Diehl.
John Parry is the referee for Super Bowl XLVI. His crew ranked third in most penalties for offensive holding during the regular season.
I've put together a chart from ESPN Stats & Information showing where Parry's crew ranked in various penalties during the 2011 season. Parry is working with an all-star crew, not his usual one. That could affect tendencies.
Parry's low ranking for unnecessary roughness appears offset, at least somewhat, by a higher number of calls for generic personal fouls.
San Francisco 49ers fans might recall Parry for the disputed chop-block call he made against running back Frank Gore at Baltimore in Week 12. The flag wiped out a 75-yard touchdown pass to Ted Ginn Jr. in a game the 49ers lost, 16-6.
That call comes to mind this week after the NFL assigned Parry's crew to work the 49ers' divisional playoff game against New Orleans on Saturday.
Coach John Harbaugh called the ruling in Baltimore "unfortunate" and "unlucky" given what he considered that specific penalty's somewhat inconsistent enforcement.
That was the only chop-block penalty Parry's crew called during the regular season. The NFL did not fine Gore for the block. I thought the call was technically accurate, at best, but it did not fulfill the intent of the rule, which was to protect players. Gore had already committed to deliver a low block when tackle Anthony Davis shoved the defender high.
With an assist from ESPN Stats & Information, I've put together a chart showing where Parry's crew ranks among the 17 crews in various penalty calls. The NFL shifts to all-star crews for championship games and the Super Bowl.
Parry's low ranking for unnecessary roughness appears offset, at least somewhat, by a higher number of calls for generic personal fouls.
On one end, the Lions are coached by an emerging sideline madman. Already this season, coach Jim Schwartz has been caught cursing at officials, taunting opposing players and creating a postgame fist-pump that has risen to cult status in Detroit.
On the other end, quarterback Matthew Stafford's unflappable steadiness has lent serenity to the huddle even as the Lions faced 20-plus point deficits the past two weeks. If his biography didn't confirm that he grew up in Dallas, I would swear Stafford spent his formative days surfing somewhere in northern California.
"We take on Matt's personality out there on the field," receiver Calvin Johnson said. "I always say that Matt is cool, calm and collected in the huddle, no matter what the situation is."
Monday night, the nation will see for itself when the Lions host the Chicago Bears at Ford Field.
To be sure, Stafford has displayed the enthusiasm of a 23-year-old during the exciting moments of the Lions’ 4-0 start. More importantly, however, he hasn't hung his head in moments of despair. After throwing an interception to end the Lions' first possession Sunday at Cowboys Stadium, Stafford simply walked off the field, slapped his hands together and checked in with offensive coordinator Scott Linehan to explain.
Asked about the pass after the game, Stafford shrugged and said: "It was the right read. Just threw a bad ball."
I'm sure some people would prefer a more fiery attitude from a team's on-field leader, but I tend to think that Stafford's perspective is a critical element for this team. An excitable young quarterback is far more likely to force throws and make mistakes than one who mostly avoids the emotional roller coaster of a typical game.
That's especially true, of course, when the head coach is going berserk on the sidelines. We first discussed Schwartz’s sideline demeanor after his first season with the Lions, noting he was once the epitome of sideline concentration during his tenure as the Tennessee Titans’ defensive coordinator.
Like many new head coaches who hand off play-calling duties to assistants, Schwartz filled his game-day void by berating officials and falling prey to the disappointments of his rebuilding team. At the time, Schwartz insisted that his sideline icons were Tony Dungy and Tom Landry and said: "When we get this team the way we need to be, you'll see a lot different me. Because if you look at me for all my years in Tennessee, I wasn't that guy with veins popping out of my head. But you can only do that when you have good players and you have confidence in them and they know you really well."
So much for that.
At the end of the Lions' Week 3 victory over the Minnesota Vikings, FOX microphones caught him telling referee Ron Winter’s to "learn the [expletive] rules!"
And in the third quarter last week, Schwartz took exception to Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant's trash-talking to Lions players during a break in the action while officials reviewed his 34-yard catch. Schwartz had immediately challenged it, and when referee John Parry reversed it, Schwartz took of his headset and pointed at Bryant.
His lips were easy to read.
"Hey, hey," Schwartz screamed. "How about that? Incomplete, you mother [expletive]!"
Asked about the episode Monday, Schwartz smiled and said: "I don't think Dez Bryant had a catch after about midway through the first quarter."
Actually, he caught one more -- a 6-yard touchdown in the second quarter. But the point was taken. Bryant didn’t sustain his hot start, or justify his trash-talking, thereafter.
To be clear, Schwartz’s sideline demeanor has never pushed him over the edge or left him unable to do his job. The Lions’ 4-0 start has been characterized by aggressive but sound game management.
And away from the field, Schwartz has a pretty monotone conversational style. His news conferences suggest he has a future in filibustering if he ever decides to step down from coaching. In reality, he is a young coach whose first head-coaching offer came from what was, at the time, the worst franchise in the league. Like everyone else in the Lions organization, he has taken a special measure of pride in their resurrection this season.
But that's how it has worked so far for the 2011 Lions. The coach gets 'em fired up while the quarterback keeps 'em level-headed. So far, it's been a perfect combination.
The second chart breaks down defensive pass-interference numbers by crew for the last three seasons.
The next chart breaks down offensive pass interference by crew for the 2010 season only.
Note that Coleman's crew has called only one such penalty this season, second-fewest in the league behind Seattle favorite Bill Leavy.
The next chart breaks down the offensive pass-interference calls by crew for the last three seasons.
The final chart shows three-year totals for roughing the passer, by crew.
Seattle fans might remember the controversial roughing penalty against Seahawks defensive end Raheem Brock during the team's defeat at New Orleans in Week 11.
The pivotal play did not draw a fine, tacit admission that referee Mike Carey's crew erred on the call.
Coleman's crews have only four roughing calls over the last three seasons, fewest in the league among referees working continuously since 2008.
Note: All info from ESPN Stats & Information and includes declined penalties.
So the Raiders pushed the San Diego Chargers around the field all day, ensuring their stressful and unlikely journey to the playoffs won’t be a solo ride. After gladly assuming the role of the NFL’s hottest and most dangerous team heading into their favorite month of the year, the Chargers saw their long reign atop the AFC West go on life support after a 28-13 loss to the Raiders.
Things got so bad in San Diego on Sunday that late in the game, when only jubilant Raiders fan remained in the stadium, San Diego’s cheerleading squad was loudly booed during its final number of a forgettable day for the home team. It’s not supposed to be this way for San Diego in December and it’s certainly not the way the previously streaking Chargers planned on opening a stretch of three home games in 11 days.
Sunday’s upset in San Diego was cause for a big celebration in Kansas City hours after the Chiefs improved to 8-4 with a 10-6 win over Denver. Oakland and San Diego are now both 6-6 and trail the Chiefs by two games with four games remaining. Oakland owns the tiebreaker over San Diego based on its season sweep. The Raiders and Chargers are both two games behind in the AFC wild-card race.
If Kansas City wins in San Diego next Sunday, it will eliminate San Diego -- which has won four straight division crowns -- from the AFC West title race. In that scenario, Kansas City would be 9-4 and San Diego would be 6-7. The Chiefs would have a three-game lead with three games to go and they would hold the tiebreaker over San Diego based on a season sweep. Oakland can’t be eliminated next week when it plays at Jacksonville, but the Raiders know they are on thin ice and have to continue to win if they want to advance to the postseason for the first time in eight years. At 3-9, Denver is the only AFC West team eliminated from playoff contention.
“We’ve been in playoff mode for three weeks now,” Oakland fullback Marcel Reece said. “The first two weeks didn’t go well, but we got back to playing Raider football and if we keep that up, we’ll be fine. We know we can play with anybody, but it was nice to get back to doing it today.”
The Chargers were clearly shocked by Sunday’s developments. Well after the game, several pockets of players huddled in the locker room discussing what went wrong on the field.
“This is not where we expected to be,” San Diego defensive lineman Luis Castillo said.
This was San Diego’s first December loss since the Philip Rivers era started in 2006. San Diego entered this month winners of four straight games, including a 22-point win at Indianapolis last week. But the Chargers were run over by a resurgent Oakland ground game, which took over after the Raiders jumped out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter via another San Diego special teams miscue and a Rivers interception.
While keeping its playoff hopes alive, Oakland also reached a major milestone in its journey from the depths of the NFL. The Raiders have won six games for the first time since 2002. The Raiders set an NFL record for futility by losing at least 11 games in seven straight seasons.
“It means we’re improving,” Oakland defensive lineman Tommy Kelly said. “I just want to see it carry over next week.”
The following are some key aspects of the game:
Raiders run through San Diego: If the Raiders can run the ball effectively, they usually win. If they can’t move the ball on the ground, they don’t have much of a chance to win.
“Yes,” Oakland guard Cooper Carlisle said, “that’s the truth in the simplest terms.”
In losing to the Steelers and the Dolphins by a combined 48 points the previous two weeks, the Raiders ran for a total of 77 yards. Sunday, against the top-ranked defense in the NFL, Oakland ran for 251 yards on 52 carries. The Raiders fed San Diego a healthy dose of both Darren McFadden and Michael Bush.
McFadden had 97 yards on 19 carries and Bush added 95 yards on 23 carries. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Raiders sliced through San Diego up the middle, which has been their calling card when the ground game works this season. Oakland had 137 yards on 30 rushing attempts up the middle Sunday. In October, Oakland had 69 rushing yards up the middle against San Diego, which was a season high for the Chargers’ defense this season.
Oakland’s ground success kept the pressure off quarterback Jason Campbell and allowed him to pick his spots, which is when he is at his best. Campbell completed 10 of 16 passes for 117 yards and one touchdown. Oakland will take a 251-117 rush-pass yardage ratio any time.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Rivers' passer rating against five or more pass-rushers Sunday was 19.9. In the first 11 games of the season under the same pressure, Rivers’ passer rating was 94.2
Because it fell behind by two touchdowns in the first quarter, San Diego ran only eight times for 21 yards. Rookie Ryan Mathews, even though he was healthy for the first time in a month, did not have a carry.
McClain hit legal: Referee John Parry said the helmet-to-helmet hit Oakland rookie middle linebacker Rolando McClain registered on San Diego running back Darren Sproles was legal because Sproles was not defenseless. After spending several moments on the grass, Sproles left the game and he did not return because of a concussion.
The San Diego crowd was incensed McClain wasn’t penalized. Parry’s explanation probably means McClain will not be fined. However, the league has been aggressively fining defenders who lead with their helmet because of concussion concerns.
Mike Sando: I have personally tracked assessed penalties and replay challenges since Mike Holmgren complained about officiating in Super Bowl XL. I also went back through records to include data since 2001. ESPN Stats & Information also tracks this information. My replay information is more detailed because it counts booth challenges, but its referee information is superior because it counts declined penalties, not just accepted ones. Its information also breaks down penalty types by crew.
Based on my records, Ron Winter's crews have assessed more penalties per game since 2003 than those headed by any of the 16 other current referees. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Winter's crew is calling more total penalties per game -- accepted plus declined -- than any other crew in 2009.
Scott Green is working the 49ers-Packers game in Week 11. Ed Hochuli is working the Seahawks-Vikings game. I'll check on the Cardinals-Rams referee once I get to the Edward Jones Dome a little later.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Based on Jim Mora's general postgame comportment Sunday, the Seahawks' coach is probably fortunate no one asked what role officiating played in the game.
Referee Don Carey, who accounted for five of 19 replay reversals through Week 2, made his league-leading sixth reversal a memorable one when he returned possession to the Bears following Matt Forte's fumble at the Seattle 1-yard line. Linebacker David Hawthorne had recovered for the Seahawks, who held a 13-0 lead at the time.
"A decision will be reversed only when the referee has indisputable visual evidence available to him," the rule book states.
This one appeared inconclusive at best.
Mora's postgame rant against kicker Olindo Mare might have read differently had anyone pressed for his thoughts on Carey's reversal. I doubt he would have the ruling, uh, acceptable.
"If you’re a kicker in the National Football League you should make those kicks -- bottom line," Mora said of Mare. "End of story. Period. No excuses. No wind, doesn’t matter. You’ve gotta makes those kicks. Especially in a game like this, where you’re kicking and fighting and scratching your tail off and you miss those kicks, it’s not acceptable. Not acceptable. Absolutely not acceptable."
Carey suffered two reversals -- and Mike Singletary's ire -- while working the 49ers-Cardinals game in Week 1. He suffered three more reversals in Week 2. The NFL's 17 referees have suffered 26 replay reversals in 48 games this season. More than a third involved calls made by Carey, a rookie referee, and second-year ref Al Riveron.
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
TAMPA, Fla. -- We can more fully analyze officiating for Super Bowl XLIII now that the NFL has announced which officials will comprise referee Terry McAulay's crew Sunday.
The seven on-field officials and replay assistant Bob McGrath come from five crews. That leaves 12 crews unrepresented.
McAulay, first-year referee Al Riveron and veteran referee Bill Leavy each placed two of their crew members in Super Bowl XLIII.
From the NFL: McAulay, who is concluding his 11th season as an NFL game official, served as the referee in Super Bowl XXXIX. The Louisiana State alum has officiated in nine playoff games -- one Super Bowl, five NFL championship games, two divisional playoffs and one wild-card game.
Under the NFL officiating program's evaluation system, the highest-rated officials at each position with the appropriate experience earn the right to work the Super Bowl. Super Bowl officials must have five years of NFL experience and previous playoff assignments.
This crew should have good chemistry. McAulay and side judge Michael Banks have worked together for years. Field judge Greg Gautreaux worked with McAulay for years until joining referee Gene Steratore's crew this season. Head linesman Derick Bowers and back judge Keith Ferguson worked on referee Bill Vinovich's crew before Vinovich retired.
We provided information on McAulay upon learning of his Super Bowl assignment last week. As for McGrath, the replay official, he challenged two calls during the final 2 minutes of halves during the regular season. The league average was 4.8, with four of the 17 replay officials initiating nearly half of booth challenges (41 of 86).
McAulay's crew officiated the AFC divisional playoff game between the Titans and Ravens. The game featured a controversial non-call by the back judge after Baltimore failed to snap the ball before the play clock expired on a critical third-down play. Leavy's crew will supply the back judge for Super Bowl XLIII.
Perlman, the line judge, is the only Super Bowl XLIII official to work the Steelers' most recent Super Bowl appearance, after the 2005 season. To my knowledge, Perlman was not directly involved in the controversial calls associated with that game.
|Denver quarterback Jay Cutler.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Bill Williamson
DENVER -- No, Chargers fans, Ed Hochuli will not be officiating next week's game in San Diego.
John Parry's crew is scheduled to work the winner-takes-all game between the Broncos and the Chargers. Hochuli should now be off the hook in the minds of San Diego fans. The Chargers are getting a second chance at the AFC West championship.
Perhaps the weakest division in the NFL this season, the AFC West will be in the spotlight in Week 17 as Denver and San Diego play for the division crown next week and the right to face No. 5 seed Indianapolis in the wild-card round on the weekend of Jan 3-4. Because of the playoff implications, the game has been flexed to prime time Sunday night.
The under-the-lights holiday affair was made possible by a Denver choke job at home against Buffalo, which had nothing to play for. Denver blew a 13-0 lead in the second quarter and ended up losing 30-23 to a team it dominated in nearly every key statistic.
A win would have clinched Denver's first division championship in three years. San Diego had won earlier at Tampa Bay 41-24, setting up next week's clash. Denver players said they were unaware of the Chargers outcome until after their game.
Two weeks ago, Denver was 8-5 and San Diego was 5-8. Yet, thanks to a three-game winning streak by the Chargers and back-to-back Broncos losses in games where a win would have clinched the division, it will be a dramatic Christmas week in the AFC West. If San Diego wins, it will win the division based on a better division record than Denver.
The turn of events gives San Diego new life. Chargers fans have been up in arms since their team was the victim of an incorrect call by officials. In the final seconds of the team's first 2008 clash in Denver, Hochuli blew a call on a Cutler fumble that San Diego recovered. The Broncos then scored a touchdown and a two-point conversion to beat the Chargers, 39-38. The NFL later admitted that it was a blown call. "Hochuli" has essentially become a dirty word in San Diego ever since.
Now, the Chargers, among the biggest disappointments in the NFL this season after being preseason Super Bowl contenders, have a chance at redemption. If Denver wins the division, it will become the fifth NFL team to go wire-to-wire without ever being tied for the division lead. That milestone looks tenuous at this point, though.
The Chargers, who are in this position thanks to a wild comeback win at Kansas City in Week 15, will enter Sunday's game playing as well as they have all season.
For Denver, this game is a shock to its system. Two weeks ago, the division looked like a done deal. And for much of Sunday it looked like a done deal. Now, Denver will head to San Diego as a clear underdog.
The Broncos were trying to erase the Bills loss from their minds moments after the game and focus on their chance in San Diego.
"It's been a roller coaster for us all year," Denver quarterback Jay Cutler said. "This is pretty normal for us. We win a few and then we lose a few ... It's par for the course at this point."
Added Denver cornerback Champ Bailey: "Our season is still in front of us. We have a one-game chance in San Diego."
Here are other key elements to Sunday's game:
All passing Broncos: The Broncos, long a premier run-first outfit, threw the ball 45 times Sunday. They ran the ball 27 times.
However, the major disparity came in the fourth quarter, when Cutler threw 22 times and the Broncos ran three times. One of the runs was by Cutler, who led Denver with eight carries.
The Broncos' battered running game took another big hit Sunday when starter P.J. Pope went out in the first quarter with a hamstring injury. He didn't return and his status for Sunday's game is unknown. He is Denver's seventh injured tailback this season.
Pope was running hard when he was hurt. He had 44 yards on six carries. Now, Denver's running backs are Tatum Bell and Selvin Young. It was clear in the second half that Denver coach Mike Shanahan doesn't trust either player to get tough yards.
Denver has to find a way to get a running attack going at San Diego or it will have no chance.
Red-faced in the red zone: A quick glance at the statistics from Sunday's game might make it look like Denver won easily. Denver outgained Buffalo 532 yards to 275. It owned the time of possession battle by six minutes, 22 seconds. It gained seven more first downs than Buffalo did.
But the killer statistic for Denver was its lack of efficiency in the red zone. Buffalo scored touchdowns on three of its five trips inside Denver's 20-yard line. The Broncos, though, scored touchdowns on two of six trips to Buffalo's red zone. The Broncos had to settle for two short field goals in the first half.
"Our inability to score touchdowns hurt us," said Denver receiver Brandon Stokley, who had the ball knocked from his hands on Denver's final play, a fourth-and-5 play in the end zone from Buffalo's 15 with 39 seconds remaining in the game.
Bailey battles: Bailey was clearly not completely ready to play. He was playing for the first time after missing seven games with a torn groin.
He had to leave the game twice. Bailey said there's no way he won't play against San Diego.
"I have to," Bailey said. "I have to be out there next week."
Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando
Replay officials have challenged rulings more frequently since the last time we pointed out wide disparities in replay rates during the final 2 minutes of halves.
Four referees hadn't faced a single booth-initiated challenge through Week 13. Those four referees have faced five such challenges in the last two weeks.
The challenge Walt Coleman faced in Baltimore was only the third raised against him this season in the final 2 minutes of a half, according to information I have tracked since 2003. Referees Gene Steratore, Ron Winter, Tony Corrente and Ed Hochuli have faced a combined 40 such challenges.
The NFL assigns the same replay officials to the same referees as part of an overall effort to foster continuity among crews.If replay officials applied the same standards each game, we might expect referees to face a similar number of booth-initiated challenges over time.
That was not the case in past seasons and it isn't the case in 2008. The inconsistent numbers raise the possibility of inconsistent standards for challenges.
The chart shows booth-initiated challenges by referee. NFL games featured 33 total challenges in Week 15, a season high even without the Monday night game. Total challenges have risen each week since Week 12 (from 19 to 25 to 27 to 33).
1:00 PM ET New Orleans Atlanta 1:00 PM ET Minnesota St. Louis 1:00 PM ET Cleveland Pittsburgh 1:00 PM ET Jacksonville Philadelphia 1:00 PM ET Oakland New York 1:00 PM ET Cincinnati Baltimore 1:00 PM ET Buffalo Chicago 1:00 PM ET Washington Houston 1:00 PM ET Tennessee Kansas City 1:00 PM ET New England Miami 4:25 PM ET Carolina Tampa Bay 4:25 PM ET San Francisco Dallas 8:30 PM ET Indianapolis Denver