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13). 2014 NFC Divisional Playoff Dallas at Green Bay

This was very similar to the “Calvin Johnson” play in 2010.On a fourth-down pass Bryant jumped over Packers corner Sam Shields, caught the ball, shifted the ball from one hand to the other, took three steps and came to the ground — and that’s where the ball (even if it looked to be under control by Bryant) hit the ground. Called a catch on the field, it was ruled incomplete on replay. The NFL-watching world erupted after that because it should have been a catch.

 

12). 1999 NFC Championship game Tampa Bay at St.Louis Rams

Bert Emanuel was the focal point of a controversial play thanks to a catch that ultimately was not called a catch – even though it should have been a catch. The Buccaneers had miraculously managed to hold the “Greatest Show on Turf” to 11 points and were driving with little time left on the clock. Bert Emanuel made a catch that in today’s game would have counted without any issues – but the “Bert Emanuel Rule” had yet to be fully implemented that day, of course. Since the ball hit the ground (even though Emanuel had the ball secured throughout the entirety of the catch), the officials called it incomplete. The Rams went on to win, and the rule was later clarified to be interpreted as it is today: the ball can hit the ground, but the receiver must have total control of it throughout the catch. The implications of this call were huge, think about it? If it is ruled a catch the Bucs go to the Super Bowl and Dick Vermeil probably doesn’t retire, Dungy never leaves the Bucs, and Gruden does not get traded to Tampa.

 

11). 2014 NFC Wild Card game Detroit at Dallas

A week later a bad call would end their season, in this game played the week before a bad call probably extended the Cowboys season.

 

10). 1979 AFC Championship game Houston at Pittsburgh

This is the game that started people screaming for instant replay; now this game would rank higher on the list, but with as great as the Steelers were I don’t think you can flat out say the Oilers would have one if they got the call.The play came in the third quarter of the 1979 AFC Title Game between the Houston Oilers and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Oilers receiver Mike Renfro made an amazing catch in the back of the end zone in the third quarter, but it was ruled that he did not get both feet in bounds (even though the replay showed he clearly had). Instead of a game-tying score, the Oilers continued to trail and ended up losing the game 27-13.

 

9). 2002 NFC Wild Card N.Y. Giants at SF 49ers

The Giants were up by a seemingly safe 38-14 late in the third quarter, but a late rally by San Francisco brought it back. When the 49ers scored a touchdown with one minute remaining to take a 39-38 lead, it seemed little there was no hope for the Giants. However, Kerry Collins led his team down the field and put it into field-goal position to win the game.The snap was botched by veteran long-snapper Trey Junkin, and holder Matt Allen picked up the ball and heaved it downfield towards offensive guard Rich Seubert. Seubert was tackled on the play, which should have resulted in a pass interference call. However, the refs considered Seubert an ineligible receiver and called the incomplete pass the last play of the game. The Refs were wrong, and the game was given to the 49ers.

 

8). 1999 AFC Wild Card Buffalo at Tennessee

In this crazy Wild Card game, the Buffalo Bills were leading the Tennessee Titans 16-15 with only 16 seconds remaining in the game. What happened on the ensuing kickoff seems more likely to be the end of some unbelievable football movie. Tight end Frank Wycheck received the kickoff, ran to one side of the field and chucked a pass across the field to Kevin Dyson, who returned it for a 75-yard touchdown.

Where the controversy comes in is that many(myself included) thought Wycheck’s pass was a forward pass and should have been ruled illegal. Watch the reply and decide for yourself whether the pass was legal or not.

 

7). 1976 AFC Divisional Playoff New England at Oakland

This game always seems to get forgotten by Raiders fans when they are bitching about the “Tuck game.” The Patriots had blown the Raiders out in New England, and it would be the only blemish on the 1976 Raiders record as they would finish 13-1. The 1976 AFC Divisional Playoff matchup between the Raiders and the New England Patriots was tainted by a controversial roughing the passer call on the Pats Ray “Sugar Bear” Hamilton gave the Raiders new life down 21-17 late in the fourth quarter. Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler took the second opportunity and capitalized, running the ball into the end zone himself to give Oakland the 24-21 victory.

 

6). 1998 NFC Wild Card game Green Bay at SF 49ers

This game is known as the “Catch 2”, and it should never have happened. Jerry Rice probably the greatest WR in history hardly ever made a mistake in his career, but he did in this game. Now he did, in fact, catch a pass – it’s what he did after catching it that sparked the controversy in this matchup. Rice was ruled down near the end of the 1999 NFC Wild-Card game between the Niners and Packers, but replay showed that Rice had in fact fumbled and the ball should have belonged to Green Bay. Instead, the 49ers retained possession and the game ended with Steve Young throwing a game-winning touchdown to Terrell Owens with the final seconds ticking off the clock. The most amazing part of this whole scenario is the fact that it was Rice’s only catch of the game.

 

5). 1977 AFC Championship game Oakland at Denver

One of the several incidents that scarred Raiders fans for life during the 1970’s was the Rob Lytle fumble incident – Lytle, a running back for the Broncos, immediately muffed a handoff during the third quarter of the 1977 AFC Championship Game, with the Broncos up 7-3. The ball came out as soon as Lytle was hit, but the referee ruled that his motion had already been stopped (by the officials). The Broncos kept the ball, scored on the very next play, and won the game 20-17. Much like the Rice play at number 5, this was not controversial; it was just a blown call.

 

4). 2002 AFC Divisional Playoff Oakland at New England

The Raiders were up by three with less than two minutes to spare. Tom Brady was looking to lead the Patriots down the field to at least attempt a field-goal. Brady dropped back to pass, and Charles Woodson came on a corner blitz and got to Brady as he was about to throw. Brady dropped the ball, and the Raiders recovered. Game over, right?

The rest is history. The infamous “Tuck Rule” was implemented, the Patriots drove down the field, Adam Vinatieri kicked the game-tying field goal in a blizzard, and New England went on to win the game and eventually the Super Bowl.

 

3). 1972 AFC Divisional Playoff Oakland at Pittsburgh

Franco Harris’ “Immaculate Reception” is perhaps the single most famous play in the storied history of the Pittsburgh Steelers, but was it a legal play? No one knows, except the players that were directly involved and they might not even know! The issue at hand is whether or not the ball hit another Steeler before Harris caught it. Back then, a ball that hit a receiver (and was not caught) could not be caught in mid-air by a second receiver from the same team. The camera issue comes into play yet again, as there are few angles of the catch and none that show what the ball hit off of before Harris caught it.

 

2). Super Bowl 40 Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Seattle Seahawks

For conspiracy theorists who claim the NFL is fixed, this is the game to look at.This game is not remembered for one particularly bad call that changed the outcome of the game either way – it was a collection of calls that make Seahawks fans rue the mention of Super Bowl XL.

The referee who worked that Super Bowl, Bill Leavy, seemingly could no longer live with the guilt of that game and four years later proclaimed to the Seattle media that his officiating crew muffed several calls on that fateful night in Detroit.

Some of the calls that were blown included a questionable holding call while the Seahawks were on the verge of scoring, and a low block called against then Seattle QB Matt Hasselbeck for a low block (even though he was actually trying to make a tackle during an interception return), not to mention a few other phantom calls that included a shady pass interference call on Seahawks receiver Darrell Jackson.

Overall, it was a debacle – a pain that will never be alleviated for the Seahawks players who in all probability had a Super Bowl ring stolen from them that day.

 

1). 1965 Western Conference Playoff Baltimore at Green Bay

This was the most egregiously bad call of all-time. The Colts were a team that had lost not one quarterback but, both Quarterbacks. First, it was the legendary John Unitas because of a leg injury; then backup Gary Cuozzo with a shoulder separation. It meant that coach Don Shula had to find some replacement. He realized Tom Matte, a spirited halfback, had once played QB at Ohio State running the old split-T formation, which was not an exactly NFL offense, even back then.

Tom Matte, with only three days to practice for the role and wearing a wristband with a ready list of plays attached, Matte gave a remarkable performance against the Los Angeles Rams to clinch a tie for the Colts with the Packers, and force the one game playoff.

Now, a week later, it’s in Green Bay, still with Matte quarterbacking, and the Colts are leading 10-7 with less than two minutes on the clock. Chandler lines up to kick from the 22-yard line, attempting to gain a tie and force overtime. Chandler swung his right leg. The ball was high — and slicing.

Underneath the goal post, Referee Jim Tunney raised his arms. It was 10-10. But Colts Lou Michaels and Fred Miller, on the field-goal defending unit, were going crazy. They led the argument, screaming the kick had gone wide of the 10-foot-high upright. But it also was above the top of the post, meaning Tunney had to imagine if the ball was good, he imagined and unfortunately for the Colts he imagined wrong.

Chandler, dropped his head as if he had missed because he had! The NFL faced such backlash from the game that they ended up extending the uprights, but in the end, there is no doubt that this Lombardi Championship was severely tainted. Don Chandler to his credit admitted years later that he did indeed miss the kick.

 

  • Stephen Hanft

    Thank you for this article. This is a very thoughtful list and definitely the definitive 13 most controversial games in NFL Postseason history.. However, in each writing, the author seems to come to the conclusion that all of the 13 controversial decisions were wrong. I think most of them were but not all of them. Since I’m an objective football fan I’d like to take each of them one-by-one and explain the controversy, whether I think the call was wrong, and whether I believe the call decided the outcome of the game. Here we go:

    13). 2014 NFC Divisional Playoff Dallas vs Green Bay

    This was a bad use of Instant Replay. The concept of instant replay is that there must be indisputable evidence to reverse an original ruling made on the field. There was not. The Instant Replay Booth applied the Calvin Johnson Rule to overturn the call from complete to incomplete. The rule said that the receiver must complete the catch to its entirety where the ball does not touch the ground. Yes, the ball did hit the ground and pop up in the air where Bryant gets the ball back. However, an argument can be made that Bryant had already secured the ball, transferred the ball to his left hand, took 3 steps, and lunged his arm with the ball to the goal line. The argument could be made that his lunge to the goal line was a “football move” which caused the ball to hit the ground. If Bryant was making a football move, then the Calvin Johnson Rule does not apply and it should’ve been a catch. By looking at the video, an argument could be made either way so the evidence was not indisputable and the original ruling of the catch should’ve stood. I don’t think this play lost the game for Dallas. I think that Green Bay may have won in the end anyway.

    12). 1999 NFC Championship Game Tampa Bay vs, St Louis Rams

    Like the previous entry, I think this is bad use of Instant Replay. Initially, the play was ruled a catch by Bert Emanuel. They needed indisputable evidence to overturn the original ruling. They didn’t have it. Sure, evidence showed that the nose of the football was touching the turf but that shouldn’t have made it incomplete.Emanuel had both hands underneath the football and in full possession and control. They said that the ground can’t cause a fumble but it can cause an incompletion. True, but that it when the recieiver doesn’t have control of the football when the ball touches the ground. Emanuel did have control. One year later, the NFL put in the Bert Emanuel Rule which would make similar catches ruled complete without any question. However, I think you didn’t need the rule then because he did enough to clearly make that catch. Besides, Instant Replay reversed the original ruling where there was definitely an argument to be made that was a catch. The original ruling should’ve stood. However, I don’t think it impacted the outcome of the game. Tampa Bay was trailing 11-5. While their defense was sensational, their offense was anemic. They needed a touchdown to win and I don’t believe Quarterback Shawn King and the struggling Tampa Bay offense would’ve gotten that touchdown even if the officials hadn’t wrongly reversed the Emanuel play.

    11). 2014 NFC Wild Card Playoff Game Detroit vs Dallas

    The Detroit Lions were clearly robbed on this play. Hitchens had his back turned facing the receiver the entire time and making illegal contact with him. This was textbook pass interference all the way. What was even more disturbing was that the officials initially threw the flag and then mysteriously picked it up without any explanation. Had the pass interference been called as it should’ve and they didn’t pick up the flag, Detroit would’ve been in scoring position and put the game away. I do firmly believe that this awful non-call of pass interference cost the Detroit Lions the game.

    10). 1979 AFC Championship Game Houston vs. Pittsburgh

    Historically, this was considered the play which brought about implementing the Instant Replay system years later. There really was no controversy of this play. Every single camera angle at every speed showed the Mike Renfro made the catch and got both feet in bounds in the back of the end zone. Had Instant Replay existed, the original ruling would’ve been reversed immediately going from an incomplete to complete. The evidence was indisputable that the original call was wrong. However, I don’t think the Oilers would’ve won the game. While Houston was a very good football team, they were not in the Steelers class. Besides, that play would’ve just tied up the game 17-17. The Steelers did score 10 more points to get to 27.

    9). 2002 NFC Wild Card Game NY Giants vs San Francisco

    The Giants were robbed on this play. The snap on the attempted game-winning field goal was muffed. The snapper tried to throw a pass. Clearly, the intended receiver was literally tackled and mugged before the ball got there. It should have been pass interference. Since a game cannot end on a defensive penalty, The Giants should’ve been given another field goal try at a much closer range. The referees said that Junkin was an ineligible receiver. First, I don’t believe that was the case. Besides, even if he was, the pass interference would’ve made it off-setting penalties and the down be replayed. Had the referees done their job and made the correct call, the Giants probably would’ve won the game with a much shorter distance field goal attempt which likely would’ve been good.

    8).1999 AFC Wild Card Game Buffalo vs. Tennessee

    This was the best non-reversal in an important playoff game in the history of Instant Replay. Phil Luckett was a much-maligned referee. He made some atrociously wrong decisions during the 1998 NFL season that was really responsible bringing Instant Replay back in 1999. I give him credit for letting the original ruling made on the field stand.There are camera angles which you could conclude that is was an illegal forward pass. However, there are also camera angles which you could conclude that it was a legitimate, legal lateral. The play was so close there was no way to be 100% sure As I said previously, if there is not indisputable evidence to overturn, the original call on the field must stand. That is what I believe happened here. That play clearly won the game for the Tennessee Titans but I don’t believe Buffalo was robbed because there wasn’t indisputable evidence to overturn.

    7). 1976 AFC Divisional Playoff New England vs. Oakland

    This is the play that the Boston Media and Patriot fans have consistently lied about for over 40 years. They dishonestly called it a “bogus call” and a “phantom call” those allegations are 100% false. Here are the facts. According to videotape from every speed and every angle, Ray “Sugar Bear” Hamilton hit Kenny Stabler in the head. That is roughing the passer. The controversy and shock was that roughing the passer was rarely called back in the 1970s. That’s true. However, just because the referees called the game much looser back then and let them get away with more doesn’t mean the Hamilton play wasn’t a penalty. Even back in 1976, the rule-book clearly stated that a defensive player cannot hit the quarterback in the head which was exactly what Hamilton did. Referee Ben Dreith made the correct call so the Patriots were not robbed on the play. It was totally Hamilton’s fault for why the Patriots lost that game in the end, not the referees. If he had just kept his hand and arm away from making contact with Stabler’s head there would’ve been no penalty. Hypothetically, had it happened that way, the Raiders would’ve faced a 4th and 18 with the season on the line. While Stabler was a great clutch Quarterback, the odds were against him converting on 4th and 18 so the Patriots probably would’ve won. However, Hamilton did rough Stabler and Dreith made the correct call giving the Raiders 15 yards and an automatic first down and they continued to march down the field for the game-winning touchdown. The Patriots never put the blame for losing the game on where it belongs which should’ve been on Hamilton, not the Referees.

    6). 1998 Wild Card Game Green Bay vs San Francisco

    As the author correctly pointed out, there was no real controversy with this play. This was a 100% atrocious blown call. From every camera angle at every speed, Jerry Rice clearly fumbled. There is no question about it. Unfortunately, the Instant Replay System would not return until one year later in 1999. Had there been Instant Replay at the time, the original call would’ve been overturned and reversed immediately as there was indisputable evidence that the referees 100% made a mistake. Had this correctly been ruled a fumble, Green Bay would’ve definitely won as there would never have been a The Catch 2. Green Bay was clearly robbed a playoff win because of this officiating mistake.

    5). This was the worst blown-call in NFL Post-Season history. At the Raiders 2-yard-line, Rob Lytle was attempting a straight-ahead dive play up-the-middle. Jack Tatum fills the whole, times his hit perfectly, and on impact the ball is immediately fumbled and recovered by the Raiders. The referees shockingly ruled that the whistle blew and Lytle was down by contact. Ridiculous. He lost the ball the second he was hit by Tatum. There was no question about it. In the videotape of the play, from every speed and angle, it shows that it was clearly 100% a fumble. Had Instant Replay existed back then, that blown call would’ve been overturned and reversed immediately. It’s such a travesty of justice. Jack Tatum made what should’ve been one of the greatest goal-line defensive plays in NFL History and the referees didn’t see it. That play was the difference in the game. Had it been ruled correctly, there is no doubt in my mind the Raiders would’ve won the game, had the opportunity to go back to the Super Bowl, and set up a football dream matchup with the Dallas Cowboys. The Raiders were clearly cheated and so were the football fans. The Raiders matched up so much better with the Cowboys and that Super Bowl could’ve been epic and one for the ages. Instead, we got a bad Super Bowl where Denver matched up poorly with Dallas. The Raiders should’ve won that game and would’ve won that game if the referees hadn’t made the worst blown-call in NFL history.

    4). 2002 AFC Divisional Playoff Game New England vs Oakland

    This was the worst abuse of the Instant Replay System in the history of Instant Replay. As I said previously, in order to overturn an original ruling on the field, there must be indisputable evidence. There was none in this case. They tried to apply the Tuck Rule to justify a reversal. However, there is clear evidence that the Tuck Rule did not apply in this case and was completely misinterpreted. Here are the fact if you slow down the videotape of this play and freeze it:. Brady had already finished the tucking process, his arm was no longer moving, his arm was stationary in a set position, and he had both hands on the football a split second before Safety Charles Woodson hit him and knocked the ball loose. Those pictures clearly show that it was a 100% fumble, no Tuck Rule. In fact ESPN Sports Science in 2012, had an article that decided many great debates in sports history. They looked at the tape and concluded that it was indeed a fumble. They had no business reversing the original call on the field which happened to be correct. This was a miscarriage of justice at the highest level. Had they not reversed the correct ruling, the Raiders take 3 knees and run out the clock. The Raiders advance to the AFC Championship game against Pittsburgh and the Patriots season is over. The Patriots should never faced the Rams and won the Super Bowl because they would never have been in that Super Bowl in the first place if not for the worst reversal in the history of replay. The Raiders were 100% robbed on this play which sent them on a downward spiral and started a Patriots dynasty that may not have happened if not for this horrendous decision.

    3). 1972 AFC Divisional Playoff Oakland vs Pittsburgh

    This controversy had raged on since 1972 and probably will continue for a long time to come. The controversy of this play was that back in 1972, to be considered a completed pass, two offensive players could not touch the ball without a defender touching ball or it would be considered an illegal play. That would be a double-touch and not allowed back then. They would change this rule 6 years later in 1978. The question was whether or not Jack Tatum touched the football. If the ball just toucked Fuqua and then deflected to Franco Harris, then that play would have been illegal at the time. However, if the ball touched Tatum and deflected to Harris then the play would have been legal and legitimate. If you play the tape in very slow-motion and freeze it, the evidence shows that the ball hit Tatum on the right shoulder. If that is the case, then it was a legal play and a touchdown. This is what I believe happened so the Raiders were not robbed on this play. In fact, you have unbiased supporting evidence that supports the ball hit Tatum. ESPN Sports Science examined the tape and due to the trajectory of the football and the speed of the deflection that the ball must’ve hit off of Tatum. A respected Physics Professor at Carnagie Mellon University studied the tape and did his own physics experiment and came to the same conclusion that ball traveling 9 yards backwards at a speed of 25 MPH proves that the Laws of Physics concludes that the ball had to been deflected off of Tatum. So, this is is a legal play and the Raiders were not robbed. There were no implications of the outcome of this game. The Steelers lost in the playoffs the following week to the Miami Dolphins. Had the Immaculate Reception no have occurred and the Raiders had won, they probably would’ve have lost to Miami as well. The Dolphins were undefeated that year and clearly the best team in football. Anyway, from all the true unbiased experts, the Immaculate Reception was a legal and legitimate play.

    2). Super Bowl 40 Pittsburgh Steelers vs Seattle Seahawks

    I know that Bill Leavy apologized years later. However, I think he did so under the pressure of the scrutiny. People say this was the worst officiated Super Bowl of all time. I disagree. I think the recent Denver vs Carolina Super Bowl was the worst officiated Super Bowl of all time but that’s another story. Anyway, I don’t believe Seattle was robbed of a Super Bowl win. While there were several questionable calls, I will focus on just 2 because I believe had they gone the other was Seattle would’ve won. The first was the offensive pass interference call against Seattle that took away a touchdown. When you look at the replay, the receiver pushed the defender very lightly to get separation and then caught the ball. I was a ticky-tack foul. However, according to the rule-book, no matter how ticky-tack the call looked, it was still a penalty and ground for an offensive pass interference call. So, the Seahawks were not robbed of a touchdown on this play. The most important call which I believe contributed greatly to the outcome of the game is the one I will now discuss. It was late in the game, Seattle was trailing 14-10. Seattle Quarterback Hasselback was leading Seattle on what looked like an eventual beautiful 98-yard touchdown drive to take the lead. Unfortunately, 1 critical penalty cost the Seahawks an eventual touchdown and probably the game. At the Pittsburgh 17-yard-line, Hasselback dropped back to pass and made an 15-yard completion to Tight End Jeremy Stevens that would have made it first-and-goal at the 2-yard-line. Unfortunately, there was a flag that negated that completion. Offensive Tackle Sean Locklear was called for holding. Looking at the Replay of that play, Pittsburgh Defensive End Clark Higgins was on a pass rush to the quarterback. He had gotten around Locklear. For maybe a split-second, Locklear hooked higgins arm but then let him go. Like the Offensive Pass Interference Call, the Locklear holding call was seen as very ticky-tacky. However, again, according to the rule-book, it was a penalty. So, the Seahawks were not robbed on this call either not matter how ticky-tacky people thought the penalty was. Had those 2 penalties not been called there is no doubt in my mind that Seattle would have won that Super Bowl. However, both those call were legitimate according to the rules so Seattle was not robbed.

    1). 1965 Western Conference NFL Playoff Baltimore vs. Green Bay

    This is the only one on the list that I don’t really remember. I was born in 1965 and saw the other 12 plays which is why I was able to so thoroughly discuss them in great detail. I thank the author for putting this game on the list. Since I consider myself a football historian, I liked researching and reading about this one. My conclusion is easy. This was as bad of a botched call as it gets. I never heard of any referee actually wrongly ruling on a field goal attempt but clearly this is the case. On the replay from every speed and angle, it is 100% obvious that Green Bay Kicker Don Chandler missed the kick. Had Instant Replay been around back then, that call would have been reversed immediately. There was obviously 100% indisputable evidence which called for a reversal of a botched field-goal ruling. It seems that had the referees made the obvious the correct decision that the kick was no good, the Baltimore Colts win that playoff game and Green Bay does not go on to win the NFL Championship that years against the Dallas Cowboys. So, those great Lombardi Packer Teams that won 5 championships, you get definitely question the legitimacy of the one they won in 1965. They got to the Dallas game on a botched call where the Colts were clearly robbed of a win.

    • Mike Goodpaster

      Great breakdown on the games!