2018 NFC Championship Game
|Date||January 20, 2019|
|Stadium||Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans, Louisiana|
|Favorite||Saints by 3|
|Referee||Bill Vinovich (52)|
|TV in the United States|
|Announcers||Joe Buck, Troy Aikman, Erin Andrews and Chris Myers|
|Nielsen ratings||27.1 (national)|
|Market share||49 (national)|
The 2018 NFC Championship Game was a National Football League (NFL) game played on January 20, 2019, to determine the National Football Conference (NFC) champion for the 2018 NFL season. The visiting, three-point underdog Los Angeles Rams defeated the New Orleans Saints 26–23 in sudden death overtime to advance to their first Super Bowl since the 2001 season. The two teams had previously faced each other in the regular season, also at the Superdome, where the Saints won 45–35.
The Rams and Saints both finished the regular season with a record of 13–3, with the Saints owning the tiebreaker due to their regular season win over the Rams, thus earning them the one seed. Once the season ended, the Saints became the team most favored to advanced to the Super Bowl. The outcome, however, went in the Rams' favor, after they came back from a 13–0 deficit, forced overtime, and scored a game-winning, 57-yard field goal, kicked by Greg Zuerlein. Despite their upset victory, the lack of a penalty called on a controversial play late in the fourth quarter became the most discussed part of the game. The play saw Saints quarterback Drew Brees throw a pass to wide receiver Tommylee Lewis, who was being covered by Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman. While the pass was still in the air, Robey-Coleman enforced an illegal, helmet-to-helmet hit on Lewis. Despite the contact matching the criteria of pass interference, no penalty flag was thrown. This prevented the Saints from potentially scoring a go-ahead touchdown and subsequently running out the clock, and instead helped the Rams force an overtime with the time remaining in the quarter.
The no-call proved to be controversial, with numerous media outlets reporting on it as well as some claiming that it cost the Saints the game. Immediately after the game concluded, the NFL admitted that a mistake made was made by the referees on the play. Robey-Coleman, who also acknowledged that his hit was illegal, was fined $26,739 by the league a few days after the game for initiating helmet-to-helmet contact. A group of Saints fans and season ticket holders filed a lawsuit against the NFL, asking the court to mandate that the game be replayed. However, league commissioner Roger Goodell determined that the no-call was an act of human error by the referees and that it was not enough to reverse the outcome of the game. The controversy also sparked conversation about changing the rules to allow coaches to ask for replay review on judgment calls. The Rams advanced to Super Bowl LIII, where they lost to the New England Patriots, with a score of 13–3, on February 3; a rematch of 2002's Super Bowl XXXVI, where the Patriots also defeated the Rams (when the franchise was based in St. Louis) 20–17.
After a Saints field goal, Jared Goff's second throw of the game was intercepted by Demario Davis at the Ram's 17 yard line. The Saints get another field goal, and the Rams fail to get a first down again and are forced to punt. The Saints march 63 yards down the field and score a touchdown, making the score 13-0 at the end of the first. The Rams scored a field goal halfway through the 2nd quarter. After 2 punts by the Saints and one by the Rams, the Rams score a touchdown on a 6 yard Todd Gurley run, cutting the lead to 3 points at the end of the half. In the second half, the Rams start with a punt. The two teams then trade touchdowns, making the score 20-17 in favor of the Saints. In the fourth quarter, another controversial no-call occurred during the Rams scoring drive, when Saints linebacker A.J. Klein was not flagged for a personal foul for an intentional facemask on Goff. The penalty would have given the Rams first-and-goal on the 1, likely resulting in a 24-20 lead which would have forced New Orleans to score a touchdown on its following drive, regardless of whether the pass interference was called or not. Instead, the Rams had to settle for a field goal to tie the game with 5:03 remaining.
Prior to the play, the game was tied 20-20. The Saints offense had stalled inside the red-zone at the Los Angeles 13 yard line. The play occurred on 3rd down with 10 yards to go for a first down. Had the Saints picked up that first down, they could have run the clock to under 20 seconds before attempting a field goal, essentially winning the game and guaranteeing themselves a ticket to the Super Bowl. Had they failed to convert, they would have left the Rams with plenty of time to drive down the field with a chance to win the game.
Buck: "Quick snap, Brees. Pass is...incomplete, no flag for Tommylee Lewis. Nickell Robey-Coleman delivered a hit, and the two officials talked to each other. Crowd's going crazy as there's no flag right on the Saints sideline".
Aikman: "Well, if Nickell Robey-Coleman plays the ball, it's an interception! He's probably going the other way with it. I mean the ball's on the other side of Robey-Coleman and...but that should have been a penalty, and Sean Payton is justifiably upset".
The play began at 1:49, with quarterback Drew Brees taking the ball and dropping back to pass. Brees threw the ball toward the right sideline, targeting Tommylee Lewis. Before Lewis could attempt to catch the ball, he was blindsided by Nickell Robey-Coleman around the 6 yard line, knocking Lewis to the ground. No flag was thrown. Saints head coach Sean Payton was enraged and appealed to the referees for a call, but to no avail.
The controversial play appeared to be a violation of two rules from the NFL Rulebook. Rule 8.5.2(a) states that "contact by a player who is not playing the ball that restricts the opponent’s opportunity to make the catch" is prohibited. Rule 8.5.2(e) prohibits players from "cutting off the path of an opponent by making contact with him, without playing the ball".
Immediately after the play, Robey-Coleman can be seen looking side-to-side, likely anticipating a penalty flag. He stated after the game that he got away with a penalty, telling reporters "Hell yeah, that was a PI. I did my part. Referee made the call. We respect it". Robey-Coleman was also reported as stating that he was intentionally committing a penalty to prevent a touchdown.
Lewis, too, was looking for a flag. After the game, he stated "I got up looking for a flag and didn’t see one. It was a bad call".
Had the penalty been called, New Orleans would have been granted a first down on the Rams six yard line with 1:45 left in the game. Los Angeles had only one time out left, meaning the Saints likely could have run the clock down to a few seconds and attempted a short field goal to win the game. The Saints win probability was calculated at 98% if pass interference had been called. After the non-call, New Orleans' win probability dropped to 78%.
Remainder of fourth quarter
Although the Saints were deprived of a crucial touchdown, they did manage a field goal to take the lead 23-20 with 1:41 remaining. The Rams put together a quick nine-play drive and kicked a 48-yard field goal with 15 seconds left in the game to tie the score. The Saints elected to kneel the ball, and send the game into overtime.
The Saints won the overtime coin toss and elected to receive the opening kickoff. They picked up a quick 15 yards on a pass interference call, but the drive stalled. On 2nd and 16, just 1 minute into overtime, Brees got hit on the arm by Rams linebacker Dante Fowler while throwing deep and the ball was intercepted by John Johnson. On the ensuing drive, the Rams drove down the field and Greg Zuerlein kicked the 57-yard game-winning field goal, sending the team to the Super Bowl. They went on to lose 13–3 against the New England Patriots.
Saints head coach Sean Payton, who had reacted demonstrably to the non-call on the sideline during the game, delivered strong remarks in his postgame press conference:
"Disappointing way to lose a game...frustrating, you know. Just getting off the phone with the league office. They blew the call. We had a lot of opportunities though, but that call puts it first and ten, we only need three plays, it's a game changing call. That's where it's at".
Payton references a phone call he held directly after the game with the NFL's Senior VP of Officiating, Al Riveron, who admitted the officials had missed the call.
Five days after the game, the NFL fined Robey-Coleman $26,739 for the play. A fine issued on a play where no penalty was called is the League's informal post hoc penalty for plays that likely should have been flagged. The fine was an admission that not only was the play a defensive pass interference violation, but it also should have been called a personal foul for an illegal hit on a defenseless receiver.
Payton and Saints players, including Brees, receiver Michael Thomas, and tight end Benjamin Watson, grew restless as Goodell was slow to reach out to players who felt like they were owed an explanation, or at least an admission that they had been wronged. Eleven days after the game, Thomas tweeted "He ain't talk to us". The next day, Brees was interviewed on the Dan Patrick Show:
“Do I really want to be in a position talking about this over and over again? No, but I have to stand up and do it because I have to represent my team, represent the Who Dat Nation, and that’s my responsibility. It’s the commissioner’s responsibility to do the same thing, and yet we don’t hear a peep for 10 days, and it’s because he has to do it now because he’s at the Super Bowl and he does his annual press conference".
In Goodell's annual Super Bowl interview on January 30, he admitted that officials were "human," but they had missed that call. While his answer did little to quell players' frustrations, it certainly did nothing for Saints fans, who effectively boycotted the Super Bowl. The game received a 26.1 television rating in New Orleans, the lowest of any market and by far the lowest ever in New Orleans.
A group of Saints fans and season ticket holders upset with the controversial non-call and the subsequent outcome of the game filed a lawsuit against the NFL on January 27, 2019.
The lawsuit, filed by Tommy Badeaux and Candis Lambert "individually and on behalf of New Orleans Saints Season Ticket Holders, New Orleans Saints National Fan Base a/k/a The Who Dat Nation and any party with interest that has been affected by the outcome," names Roger Goodell and the NFL as defendants. The lawsuit asks the Louisiana Court "to mandate the extraordinary step of ordering a replay of the NFC Championship Game, and for damages to all putative class member Saints fans. The consequences of ordering are replay of the NFC Championship Game or any portion of the game cannot be overstated". Such an order would have been the first in history.
The next day, the NFL publicly acknowledged the missed call for the first time. In the same press release, they asked that the lawsuit be thrown out on the grounds that "this kind of dispute implicates no legally cognizable rights".
The court denied the plaintiffs request to replay the game days later.
There was also petition on Change.org made demanding that Goodell declare a rematch between the Rams and the Saints on January 27, 2019, the Sunday before the Super Bowl. A total of 760,512 people signed the petition, but no such action was taken.
On January 30, 2019, reports began to surface that the NFL was considering a rule change. Goodell said during his Super Bowl interview that the league would re-examine replay rules, specifically those excluding judgment calls from being reviewable.
Further reports indicated that the NFL is considering adopting a rule that would allow a limited basis for coaches to challenge judgment calls, or whether or not a penalty had been called. The rule would include a consequence should the call be upheld.
In March 2019, the NFL proposed a rule for a one-year replay expansion trial. Under the proposed rule, penalties and pass interference calls would be reviewable.
On March 27, 2019, NFL owners approved a trial rule change that would allow coaches to challenge pass interference call on both the offense and the defense. The measure was approved by vote of 31–1, with the Cincinnati Bengals being the only team to abstain.
|Los Angeles||Position||Position||New Orleans|
|Tyler Higbee||TE||WR||Tre'Quan Smith|
|Andrew Whitworth||LT||Terron Armstead|
|Rodger Saffold||LG||Andrus Peat|
|John Sullivan||C||Max Unger|
|Austin Blythe||RG||Larry Warford|
|Rob Havenstein||RT||Ryan Ramczyk|
|Gerald Everett||TE||Garrett Griffin|
|Brandin Cooks||WR||Michael Thomas|
|Jared Goff||QB||Drew Brees|
|Robert Woods||WR||Ted Ginn Jr|
|Todd Gurley||HB||RB||Mark Ingram|
|Michael Brockers||DE||LDE||Cameron Jordan|
|Ndamukong Suh||NT||Tyeler Davison|
|Aaron Donald||DT||David Onyemata|
|Dante Fowler||WILL||Demario Davis|
|Cory Littleton||ILB||RDE||Alex Okafor|
|Mark Barron||ILB||SAM||A. J. Klein|
|Nickell Robey||CB||Marshon Lattimore|
|Marcus Peters||LCB||Eli Apple|
|Aqib Talib||RCB||S||Vonn Bell|
|Lamarcus Joyner||SS||CB||P.J. Williams|
|John Johnson||SS||FS||Marcus Williams|
|Greg Zuerlein||K||Will Lutz|
|Johnny Hekker||P||Thomas Morstead|
Officials adapted from official NFL game summary.
- Referee: Bill Vinovich (#52)
- Line Judge: Rusty Baynes (#59)
- Down Judge: Patrick Turner (#13)
- Side Judge: Tom Hill (#97)
- Umpire: Bruce Stritesky (#102)
- Field Judge: Gary Cavaletto (#60)
- Back Judge: Todd Prukop (#30)
- Replay Official: Mike Wimmer (#0)
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