Immaculate perception: Debate about final play of Panthers-Patriots rages on

jperson@charlotteobserver.comNovember 19, 2013 

For 59 minutes and 57 seconds of the Carolina Panthers’ 24-20 win against New England on Monday, Ron Rivera said his team did exactly what it hoped to do.

But it’s those final three seconds that everyone was talking about Tuesday.

The pass interference call and subsequent no-call on Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly on the game’s final play dominated the day-after discussions on sports talk shows, Twitter and, apparently, at the gate for US Airways’ Boston flight out of Charlotte on Tuesday morning.

After driving to the Panthers’ 18 and needing a touchdown to win, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady threw into the end zone for tight end Rob Gronkowski. Replays clearly showed Kuechly holding Gronkowski – it was more like a bear hug – as safety Robert Lester undercut the two players to intercept the pass near the front of the end zone.

Back judge Terrence Miles immediately threw a flag for pass interference on Kuechly.

But after referee Clete Blakeman conferred with two other officials, they ruled Brady’s pass was uncatchable and picked up the flag.

Blakeman didn’t explain that to the ESPN audience or the Bank of America Stadium crowd at the time of his announcement that the game was over, but did so later when meeting with pool reporters.

“It was determined at that point in time that when the primary contact occurred on the tight end that the ball, in essence, was coming in underthrown and, in essence, it was immediate at that point intercepted at the front end of the end zone,” Blakeman said.

“So there was a determination that, in essence, uncatchability, that the ball was intercepted at or about the same time the primary contact against the receiver occurred.”

Debate began almost immediately.

Former NFL referee Gerry Austin, the Greensboro resident who serves as a rules analyst on ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” broadcasts, said he agreed with the call. Color analyst and former NFL coach Jon Gruden argued it was uncatchable only because Kuechly was holding Gronkowski.

Dean Blandino, the league’s vice president of officiating, told an NFL Media reporter on “Around the League Live” on Tuesday the officials used the proper protocol to make a “tight judgment call,” but stopped short of calling it the right call.

Rivera, who admittedly said he was “biased,” thought Blakeman’s explanation for picking up the flag made sense.

“It happened behind where the ball was intercepted,” Rivera said. “We’ve been on the other end of those calls, too. So as far as I’m concerned, that was the decision. It’s a decision we live with. Because no matter how much people want to talk about it, rehash it, it’s not going to change.”

Brady was in a heated discussion with Blakeman as he walked off the field at Bank of America Stadium, but chose his words carefully when talking with the media.

“There was no explanation given to me,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said after the game. “The officials ran off the field. The last time I started asking an official about a call, that was the wrong thing to do.”

It was the second time this season the Patriots had a disputed call go against them at the end of a loss. They were penalized for an illegal push on a long field-goal try against the Jets last month, giving Nick Folk a shorter game-winning kick in overtime.

But Kuechly and the Panthers have been on the wrong side of calls in critical situations, as well.

In a Week 2 loss at Buffalo, Kuechly was penalized for pass interference for making contact with Bills receiver Stevie Johnson, negating what would have been a game-sealing interception by safety Colin Jones.

Johnson caught the game-winning touchdown pass two plays later.

Panthers players and coaches said they knew Brady would target Gronkowski on the final play. The two hooked up for a 23-yard completion to convert a fourth down earlier on the drive.

Panthers defensive coordinator Sean McDermott called for a “split safeties” zone coverage on the last play, with linebackers Thomas Davis and Kuechly lined up deep to cover the seam routes.

Kuechly was aligned 15 yards off the line of scrimmage when the ball was snapped.

“We had a feel for where he wanted to go. We were inside. We were in good position,” Rivera said. “Robert Lester was right where he needed to be. That ball was not going through the middle of the defense.”

“We thought we knew what they were going to do. That’s what they did, we were in position and the ref made the call he made, and we have to stick by it,” McDermott said. “I appreciate the way the guys handled that 2-minute drive. Fifty-nine seconds on the clock, three timeouts and Tom Brady under center. I thought we showed great mental toughness.”

But the Panthers’ fortitude is not what most NFL fans and media members wanted to hear about.

As for Kuechly, last year’s Defensive Rookie of the Year, said that with his back turned to Brady, he was trying to read Gronkowski’s eyes and hands. And he was grateful for the end result.

“I just knew they picked (the flag) up,” Kuechly said. “And I was happy about it.”

Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson

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