Penalties, and lack thereof, alter the course of Bengals Super Bowl chances

NFL officiating expert: It's a shame
Rams Bengals Super Bowl Football
Van Jefferson, Eli Apple
Posted at 11:31 PM, Feb 13, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-14 15:03:09-05

LOS ANGELES — The Cincinnati Bengals were one score away from winning the franchise's first ever Super Bowl title. Fans are pointing fingers at the referees as to how that one score difference came to pass.

Penalties - called and non-called - left fans and players of both teams feeling burned in Super Bowl LVI. Overall, there were only six penalties in the game and not one video-assisted review, a rarity in today's NFL. Cincinnati had the fifth-fewest penalties called on them all season and the Rams were close behind with the seventh-fewest.

Early on, the game's officials seemed intent on letting them play without too many ticky-tack penalty calls, which included several no-calls or outright misses.

One of the first notable examples of this was when star Rams cornerback Jaylen Ramsey tugged at Bengals wide receiver Tee Higgins' jersey in front of the endzone as the first quarter wound down. It was on 3rd & 10 at the LA Rams 11 yard line. It's possible the ball was tipped, which nullifies any contact penalty, and it's also possible Ramsey would have deflected the pass anyway because of his positioning, but the jersey was noticeably tugged. This set up an Evan McPherson field goal, leaving four crucial points on the table.

The most obvious no-call that benefited the Bengals involved the same two players. On the first play from scrimmage of the 2nd half, Joe Burrow launched a pass downfield for Higgins on the left side of play. Higgins grabbed Ramsey's facemask, turning his head around and knocking him off balance, allowing Higgins to get free for the catch and run for a 75-yard touchdown. Ramsey was standing dumbfounded on the field afterward, expecting an offensive pass interference or a facemask penalty. The referees didn't see it.

The Rams' game-winning drive was kept alive after three straight controversial penalty calls, the first of which has been really tough to swallow for Bengals fans.

What you could label a "makeup call" for the Ramsey facemask miss came in the most crucial time of the game: On 3rd & Goal with just 1:48 left to play in the 4th quarter, Stafford passed over the middle to a streaking Cooper Kupp. Bengals linebacker Logan Wilson knocked the ball away from Kupp's reach, but was called for a defensive holding for his apparent actions in the moments before the ball reached Kupp. Replay shows... not much. Former NFL referee and rules analyst for Fox Sports Mike Pereira said of the call, "It's just not holding."

A first down was awarded at the Bengals 4-yard line.

What appeared to possibly have been a false start by the Rams offensive line to begin with should have nullified the play, but nothing was called.

Stafford completed a pass to Kupp for a touchdown on the next play, but the play was nullified when the Rams were penalized for holding. However, Vonn Bell hit Kupp after he caught the ball and was called for unnecessary roughness, causing the penalties to offset. The teams would replay the down.

Eli Apple was called for pass interference on the next play, allowing the Rams to move up to the 1-yard-line. With a fresh set of downs and just 1 yard to go, Stafford eventually connected with Kupp for the go-ahead touchdown, giving the Rams a 23-20 lead.

The Bengals had a chance to tie or take the lead but were stopped on 4th & 1 when Joe Burrow was wrapped up by Aaron Donald in the backfield. He tried to throw the ball to anyone nearby in a desperate attempt, but it faltered to an incompletion. The Rams took over on downs and ran out the clock, winning the second Super Bowl in franchise history.

Pereira broke down the calls post-game, and while he acknowledged it was a mix of miscues for the officiating crew, he said "Two wrongs don't make a right."

"It's a shame we do have to talk about (officiating)," Pereira said.

For the Bengals, it was another heartbreaking trip to the Super Bowl. In 1982 it was the goalline stand by the 49ers, in 1989 it was the last-minute touchdown drive by the same team that left them shocked. In 2022, it was the series of penalties on the last drive that allowed the Rams to score late. The team has been to three Super Bowls and lost by a total of 12 points in all three. So close, yet so far.

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