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Officiating controversies are altering the NFC North race

The 2019 Minnesota Vikings and 2019 Detroit Lions now have something in common: They lost at Lambeau Field partly because of bizarre and befuddled officiating. Both teams will now have to chase down the 5-1 Green Bay Packers from behind in part because of botched calls.

On Monday Night Football, the Lions lost to the Packers 23-22 on a walk-off field goal by kicker Mason Crosby. Detroit might have had a chance for a comeback on the arm of Matt Stafford, who had been successful earlier in the game throwing downfield against the Packers’ secondary, if not for a strange flag for illegal hands to the face by defensive end Trey Flowers.

It was the second such costly call in which the replay clearly showed that Flowers had the inside of the jersey of Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari.

“They saw something different from what actually happened and they called what they thought they saw,” Flowers told reporters after the game.

In a pool report interview with Clete Blakeman, head official in the game (but was not the official who threw the flag on both plays) Blakeman said Flowers pushed Bakthiari’s head back for too long.

“Our umpire threw both of them and the last one is really the one I discussed with him,” Blakeman said. “Basically, for illegal use of hands, hands to the face foul to be created we need some forceful contact that’s prolonged to the head and neck area (by) the defender. In his mind, he had him pinned back, so it was prolonged. That’s what created the foul.”

The two calls against Flowers, one of which negated a sack of Aaron Rodgers that might have ended the game instead led to a 35-yard touchdown pass that brought the Packers within two points.

It’s worth noting that Flowers has never been called for that penalty before. On the ESPN broadcast, the former official in the booth strongly disagreed with both calls.

Those two mishaps were just the cherry on top.

A call for too many men on the field cost the Lions a third down stop and eventually led to a Packers touchdown. The flag was thrown before Green Bay even lined up but later in the game the Packers had 13 men on the field with the Lions lined up and no flag was thrown.

One of Stafford’s deep passes, that would have given Detroit a chance to put the dagger in Green Bay, fell incomplete due to a clear pass interference by cornerback Will Redmond but again there was no flag. Certainly this would have been an instance worth challenging but NFL coaches are now hesitating to challenge pass interference considering just one of the last 25 calls has been overturned (per ESPN’s Kevin Seifert).

The Lions were also flagged for a 15-yard personal foul on a play in which the defensive back made accidental head-to-head contact with the Green Bay receiver while diving for an interception. Blakeman said after the game it was the right call.

During the game, frustration bubbled from NFL players and analysts. A producer for the ESPN show “Get Up” tweeted that penalties are up by three per game this year after holding steady around 15 per game over the last three years.

The NFL officiating account was silent.

The Vikings have every bit the reason to be upset as the Lions. In their Week 2 loss to Green Bay, receiver Stefon Diggs scored a touchdown on a pass from Kirk Cousins that was overturned after a review found running back Dalvin Cook interfered with a Packers defender. Minnesota ended up with a field goal instead of seven points and ultimately lost the game 21-16.

The only explanation in the building at the time was that Cook had been “blocking” the defender. In the locker room after the game, Cook didn’t even know the call was on him.

The league later explained that it looks at everything on each scoring play. But there haven’t been any instances like it since.

It’s hard to say exactly how things would have played out in either game. The Vikings and Lions both missed opportunities to win their respective games against the Packers. And certainly there have always been calls that went the wrong way in all sports. But the NFL’s officiating mishaps have been put underneath the microscope since the NFC Championship game in which a no-call on an obvious pass interference cost the Saints a trip to the Super Bowl.

The attempts to remedy the Saints miscue combined with yearly “points of emphasis”–  that confuse teams and fans and lead to overzealous flags for things that were never an issue before — have resulted in the most irritation among fans and teams since “what’s a catch?”

Even Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said, after calming himself for a moment, the league “needs to figure it out,” when asked about a review in his team’s win over the Giants.

The Vikings now head to Detroit to face a desperate Lions team. Neither team can afford a loss, in part because of the hole the officials dug for them. Who knows what type of officiating confusion awaits at Ford Field.


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