NEW ORLEANS --The way Sean Payton sprang onto the postgame podium and bounded up to the lectern, you had to wonder if he thought referee Bill Vinovich might be hiding there somewhere.
“Just getting off the phone with the league office. They blew the call,” the New Orleans Saints coach told reporters, in the wake of his team’s 26-23 overtime loss to the Los Angeles Rams, which sent the Rams to Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta.
The Saints, who had come back to beat the Eagles on the same field a week earlier, lost an NFC championship game in which they never trailed, until the final play.
“Man, there were a lot of opportunities, though, but that call puts [us] in first-and-10, we only need three plays [to run the clock down before kicking a game-winning field goal]. It’s a game-changing call. …
"Credit to the Rams, they made some big plays and some big kicks,” Payton said, those kicks including Greg Zuerlein’s 57-yard field goal to win the game, with 11 minutes, 43 seconds left in overtime. “It’s just hard to swallow, and then to get a phone call …”
Payton said Alberto Riveron, the NFL’s senior vice president of officiating, called him and said “not only was it interference, it was helmet-to-helmet. They couldn’t believe it.”
League officials did not immediately confirm or deny Payton’s account of his conversation with Riveron.
If you hate the crawling pace of NFL games these days, with so much reliance on video review, you’re probably going to really hate what comes out of the league meetings in March after this fiasco. Pass interference calls or non-calls have never been reviewable, as Vinovich noted in his remarks to a pool reporter after the game.
They might be next season.
With 1:49 left in regulation, the Saints faced third-and-10 from the Rams’ 13, the score tied at 20. They were well within Wil Lutz’s field-goal range, but they wanted to drain more clock before giving the ball back to Jared Goff and the Rams.
Quarterback Drew Brees found wideout Tommylee Lewis open at the right sideline on a wheel route, at about the 5. As Lewis waited for the ball to arrive, Rams corner Nickell Robey-Coleman flew in and slammed Lewis to the turf. Then the ball flew past.
Robey-Coleman’s back was turned to the ball. It was blatant pass interference, to 73,028 screaming Saints fans, and pretty much even to Robey-Coleman, who said afterward he got up expecting to see a flag. Back judge Todd Prukop didn’t throw one.
“It was a judgment call by the covering official,” Vinovich told the pool reporter. “I personally have not seen the play.”
Vinovich said the time left had no bearing on the lack of a call.
“When I hit him, and I saw where the ball was, I thought it was going to be a flag, pass interference. I didn’t play the ball. I didn’t look back. I just hit him,” Robey-Coleman said.
The Saints had to leave 1:41 on the clock after kicking the go-ahead field goal. The Rams were able to then drive to the New Orleans 30, setting up Zuerlein for a 48-yarder that sent the game into overtime.
Then in OT, Brees was hit as he threw, the ball blooped up, and Rams safety Johnny Johnson caught it at the Rams’ 46.
Almost before the stunned Saints could digest what was happening, Zuerlein was lining up with the game on the line. His winning 57-yarder was strong enough to be good from 70.
“It’s tough to get over it. … We will probably never get over it,” Payton said. He noted that he is on the NFL competition committee, and said: “Man, I hope no other team has to lose a game the way we lost that one today. We were in position. Be on a knee for three plays [and kick a field goal].”
Lewis said it was “obvious interference, and a helmet-to-helmet. It’s done now, what’s done is done. I don’t know what else to say about it.”
He said he got no response from any official when he bounced up looking for a flag and asked why there wasn’t one.
“I wouldn’t say it sucked life out of us, but that’s a critical time and a critical point in the game. … It feels like everything we’ve worked for has kind of gone down the drain right now.”
Brees, who turned 40 on Tuesday, saw what might have been his last chance at a second Super Bowl ring disappear abruptly. Afterward he agreed the non-call was “tough to swallow,” but he focused more on the plays the Saints didn’t make, in blowing an early 13-0 lead against an initially shaky young Rams team.
Robey-Coleman’s defense was that the officiating crew let a lot go, more and more as the game progressed, and the Saints got away with transgressions, as well.
But the Saints didn’t get away with any that would have ended the game.
“Yeah,” Robey-Coleman said, when asked if it felt like players could do anything they wanted in the fourth quarter. “I was down there, I was getting dirty tonight. They were getting dirty too.”
He was standing in the middle of the crowded visitors’ locker room, in full uniform more than half an hour after the game. Robey-Coleman said his phone was “going crazy right now.” He was asked if this was from people congratulating him or objecting to his play.
“I think it might be both,” he said.
Robey-Coleman said he had to calculate the damage from a possible penalty call against letting Lewis make the catch. He didn’t think he could let Lewis make the catch.
“I can’t afford to look back, they might gun it in there,” he said.