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NFL PLAYOFFS

No Stars in Stripes on This Weekend

NFL says referee erred in overturning interception by Steelers' Polamalu, the most hotly disputed of several controversial calls in the divisional playoffs.

January 17, 2006|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

Upon further review ... the official goofed.

The NFL on Monday said referee Pete Morelli made a mistake Sunday when he overturned an interception of a Peyton Manning pass by Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu in a divisional playoff game at Indianapolis.

Mike Pereira, the league's vice president of officiating, said in a statement that Morelli should have upheld the interception call, which would have factored heavily into the outcome had the Steelers not hung on for a 21-18 victory.

It was perhaps the most controversial call in a weekend that included at least two others, both in New England's loss at Denver.

The ruling against the Steelers came with 5 minutes 26 seconds remaining, when they were trying to protect a 21-10 lead. Safety Polamalu made a diving interception of Manning's pass, rolled on the ground and got up to run. When he did, he fumbled and then pounced on the loose ball. The Colts challenged the interception call, and Morelli ruled it an incomplete pass, saying replays showed Polamalu never had possession.

About a dozen TV and scoreboard replays indicated otherwise -- and, a day later, so did the NFL in a rare acknowledgment.

"The definition of a catch -- or in this case an interception -- states that in the process of making a catch a player must maintain possession of the ball after he contacts the ground," Pereira said.

"The initial call on the field was that Troy Polamalu intercepted the pass because he maintained possession of the ball after hitting the ground. The replay showed that Polamalu had rolled over and was rising to his feet when the ball came loose. He maintained possession long enough to establish a catch. Therefore, the replay review should have upheld the call on the field that it was a catch and fumble.

"The rule regarding the performing of an act common to the game applies when there is contact with a defensive player and the ball comes loose, which did not happen here."

Although the NFL almost never publicly discloses the result of its reviews, it did so three years ago, when Pereira said officials should have called pass interference against San Francisco on the final play of a wild-card game against the New York Giants. Such a call would have given the Giants a second chance to kick a game-winning field goal in a 39-38 loss.

After Sunday's game, at least one Pittsburgh player accused the officials of trying to cheat the Steelers in order to control the outcome.

"It's like they were out there saying, 'We don't care if you know it. We're cheating for Indianapolis,' " linebacker Joey Porter told reporters. "They definitely wanted the Colts to move on, not us. ... The way the refs were going, I wouldn't have trusted them in overtime. If we hadn't won, they would have cheated us in overtime.

"... What do we gotta do to make an interception? He caught the ball, rolled on the ground, got up and knocked the ball out of his hand with his knee. How can you say that's not an interception?

"It was just one of those games, the world wanted Indy to win so bad, they were going to do whatever they could. It was like the 9/11 year when they wanted the Patriots [who beat the Steelers in the AFC final] to win it for the world. ... That's what they wanted for Indy today. They wanted [Manning] to win that game no matter what happened. They wanted him to win that game, and they were going to give him all the opportunities to win it."

Typically, the NFL has fined players and coaches for milder criticism of officials. So it's likely Porter will have to pay for his remarks. Such a fine would be levied this week.

New England Coach Bill Belichick took a softer jab at officials Sunday, a day after the Patriots were eliminated.

He was particularly unhappy about a 39-yard interference call on cornerback Asante Samuel that set up Denver's first score. Replays showed that the defensive back appeared to have position on receiver Ashley Lelie, who looked to be illegally bumping Samuel's shoulders. The penalty gave the Broncos the ball on the one-yard line.

Later, at the end of a 100-yard interception return, Denver cornerback Champ Bailey was hit and fumbled. It was questionable whether the ball sailed out of bounds at the one -- as officials ruled -- or in the corner of the end zone, which would have returned possession to the Patriots.

"There were certainly some very questionable decisions in that game that I'm surprised that was a playoff crew," Belichick said a day after the 27-13 defeat. "But that didn't decide the outcome of the game. I think it would've been a lot worse if it had come down to one play and that play had been a questionable call or something like that. That really wasn't the case."

It's worth noting in the cases of the Steelers and Patriots the controversial calls went against the visiting teams. There might have been more pressure on the officials at the game had the plays in question been shown over and over on the video scoreboards.

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