Falcons unhappy about late-game spot of ball in loss to Bucs

Credit: AJC

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Falcons rookie cornerback A. J. Terrell on the loss to Tom Brady and the Bucs.

Credit: AJC

More than likely, it would not have mattered.

The Falcons were trailing late and were without any timeouts. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had possession of the football and were deep in Falcons’ territory with the clock ticking away. In the era of analytics and win probability, the Falcons’ chance of a miraculous win in this circumstance was next to zero had they been able to get the ball back with less than 30 seconds to go during Sunday’s 31-27 loss.

But on third-and-2 from the Falcons’ 11-yard line, running back Leonard Fournette was given the ball and couldn’t find any room up the middle. Fournette pivoted to his right as Falcons defensive tackle Tyeler Davison wrapped him up to bring him to the ground. As the play unfolded, it looked like there was a good chance Fournette was short of the first-down marker.

The Fox broadcast crew calling the game, which featured play-by-play announcer Kevin Burkhardt and color analyst Daryl Johnston, felt the play was short, with both Burkhardt and Johnston repeating stating that it didn’t look like Fournette reached the 9-yard line. The officiating crew came out for a measurement and stretched the sticks. Although it appeared there was a little bit of space between the first-down chain and the football - a point hammered home by the broadcast crew - the officiating crew gave the Buccaneers the first down.

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Since this play occurred with less than two minutes to go in the game, it was sent to the NFL’s New York replay office for review. However, the officiating crew there decided there was no evidence to overturn the play as called. In turn, quarterback Tom Brady took a knee on the next play, with the Buccaneers running the clock out in the game.

Falcons interim coach Raheem Morris watched the replay on the Mercedes-Benz Stadium halo board. While he wouldn’t say whether he agreed or disagreed with the call, Morris said the play was obviously left to the officials’ interpretation of what it saw.

“Those calls all come down based on New York,” Morris said. “They don’t have clear evidence, so to speak, that it’s not a first down. Maybe we had a better camera view from the halo board than they did in New York. It is what it is.”

As the play was being reviewed in real time, the FOX broadcast brought on rules analyst Dean Blandino and asked for his opinion.

“I’m looking at this and it certainly looks short,” Blandino said on-air. “Angles are tough. He needed the 9-yard line so we don’t have a big line to work with. But to me, I didn’t see any part of that football making the 9. It’s very close. These are difficult to overturn. But in looking at this I do feel he’s short.”

Blandino’s statement about this kind of call being difficult to overturn proved to be correct.

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Buccaneers cornerback Carlton Davis breaks up a pass in the end zone to Falcons wide receiver Russell Gage during the second quarter Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020, in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Buccaneers cornerback Carlton Davis breaks up a pass in the end zone to Falcons wide receiver Russell Gage during the second quarter Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020, in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Combined ShapeCaption
Buccaneers cornerback Carlton Davis breaks up a pass in the end zone to Falcons wide receiver Russell Gage during the second quarter Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020, in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

After the game, quarterback Matt Ryan said that replay angles make it tough to overturn those types of calls and declined to comment on whether he agreed or disagreed with the ruling. Safety Sharrod Neasman acknowledged that he watched the replay on the halo board but that it’s a decision for the officiating crew to make.

Defensive tackle Grady Jarrett and cornerback A.J. Terrell disagreed with what was called based on what they felt they saw.

“I didn’t think it was close on the halo board,” Jarrett said. “I didn’t think it was close, honestly, on the field.”

Said Terrell: “I don’t think he got the first down. It is what it is and I just control what I can control.”

When reached, the NFL league office declined to comment about the officiating decision other than to say it is a “judgment call.”

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If the play would have gone the Falcons’ way and brought up fourth down, the Bucs would have had two options — attempt a 28-yard field goal or run another play to pick up the first down to ice the game. Either way, the chance of a Falcons’ win would have been razor thin since they would have had somewhere between an estimated 20 and 25 seconds to score either a game-tying touchdown (had Tampa Bay kicked a field goal) or go 90 yards to get the ball in the end zone (had the Buccaneers failed a first-down conversion attempt).

This doesn’t even account for the craziest of scenarios, where the Bucs’ fumble on fourth down, whether it’s a field goal try or a attempt to pick up a first down, with the Falcons returning it for a touchdown.

“At the end of the day, we wanted the opportunity to play the fourth down because there’s no telling what could happen,” Jarrett said. “It’s unfortunate things didn’t go our way.”