Every week referees unnecessarily ruin NFL games. They’re supposed to keep players safe and ensure that the game is played in a fair manner. But there is always some controversy. It could be because they didn’t see something properly and failed to review it. Most of it is probably just human error, but the worst mistakes cause fans to question if corruption is in the air.
So today we’ll look at 25 times NFL unnecessarily ruined games. We’ve included a mixture of classic calls that changed NFL rules as we know them. There are also some more recent mistakes from recent years that show how dumb the officials can be. Check out the list below via Stadium Talk.
25. 49ers vs. Packers (2021)
This game was full of questionable calls. The biggest controversy came in the fourth quarter after Jimmie Ward’s brutal hit on Davante Adams. It sent the Packers’ receiver off the field but the Niners escaped without punishment. Adams was a defenseless receiver, yet the officials failed to flag the aggressor. Then on the next drive, the hapless officials needlessly called the Packers for roughing the passer and tripping (via NBC Sports).
Green Bay wasn’t impressed because it was one of those decisions that referees usually overlook to allow the game to flow. But San Francisco also faced the brunt of some shocking calls. This time the officials missed a clear holding penalty against John Runyan that effectively snatched the game from the 49ers. It was a horrendous all-around display from the officials but one that fans are too familiar with.
Nothing beats lying back and watching the football after eating too much food on Thanksgiving. The Detroit Lions faced the Pittsburgh Steelers on Turkey Day back in ’98. But they didn’t know that this game would produce one of the most controversial moments of all time. The game went to overtime when head referee Phil Luckett made a career-defining mistake.
Bettis called ‘tails’ but Luckett claimed that the Steelers captain said ‘heads’. Then, the Steelers went and won the game. Later, the referee clarified that Bettis had changed his mind in the middle of saying ‘heads’ (via The Washington Post). However, Lions fans refused to forgive him. It remains contentious because some people believe he unnecessarily made the call while others say that he did the right thing.
The Chargers had a great start to 2021 but the officials handed them a get-out-of-jail-free card against the Browns in Week Three of this year. Myles Garrett was apoplectic after the game because they unnecessarily awarded the Chargers a pass interference call. It was totally wrong but the worst aspect was that it led to the Chargers’ game-winning touchdown. Of course, Cleveland felt robbed.
A.J. Green barely made contact with L.A.’s Mike Williams but the call went against him for some strange reason. In fact, Williams had a handful of Green’s jersey so he was the true perpetrator (via Fansided). The officials should have flagged him for offensive pass interference but they bottled it and went in favor of the attacker. It left the Browns shaking their head in despair because they deserved more.
Ironically, Tom Brady complained about poor officiating the week before but he didn’t say a word about the AFC Championship Game. Of course, that’s because the decision went in his favor. Fans witnessed one of the most embarrassing roughing the passer calls ever when the referee cited the Kansas City pass rusher for hitting Brady. Brady went down like a sack of potatoes after the Kansas player brushed against him.
Instantly, a wave of fury broke out online. NFL star J.J. Watt condemned referees for needlessly ruining the biggest moments of players’ careers. Of course, this game had major ramifications because the winner went to the Super Bowl. In this case, it was the Patriots who won and later crushed the Rams. The finest of margins will affect results at the highest level so the officials must be on point (via The Spun).
The Browns faced the Jaguars in a do-or-die game. They knew that defeat would end their slim hopes of making it into the postseason. But they were prepared to go down fighting. However, they didn’t count on the referees stealing away the game. Bottlegate is infamous because the officials made a wrong decision. They also successfully infuriated the entire Brown fanbase (via Toledo Blade).
Cleveland QB Tim Couch threw a pass to Quincy Morgan for a first down. Then, the Browns successfully snapped the ball and spiked it before the officials reviewed the play. There’s no denying that the catch was questionable but it was already too late to check it because of a new play. However, Terry McAuley and his team ignored this and checked it anyway. When they ruled out the touchdown, the crowd exploded and rained bottles down from above onto the field.
2021’s trend of horrifying officiating reached a new low when Pittsburgh played Seattle. Luckily, they didn’t cost the Steelers the game, but it came very close. Seattle trailed by three points with 10 seconds left and no timeouts. Then, D.K. Metcalf fumbled the ball when fighting for extra yards instead of going out of bounds. His teammate caught the ball and spiked it while the officials were unnecessarily checking to see if Metcalf caught the ball.
Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin made his outrage clear after the game. He said that he didn’t understand why the officials handled the situation the way they did. The Steelers still won in overtime but the game shouldn’t have reached that stage. However, he held back on his criticism because he didn’t want the NFL to hit him with a fine for speaking out (via Bleacher Report).
There are inexplicable officiating decisions every season but this one is up there with the strangest. Carson Wentz and his Eagles were playing Seattle when the referees decided to make things weird. Jason Kelce sent a snap past Wentz’s head and the QB struggled to get it under control. Meanwhile, Carlos Dunlap chased him back 24 yards and took him down as Wentz threw the ball away (via Sports Illustrated).
It went out of bounds three yards short of scrimmage and was clearly intentional grounding. However, the referees saw it differently and claimed that it did reach the line of scrimmage. They unnecessarily infuriated everybody because it clearly didn’t. There was even an official standing two yards away but somehow they still contrived to get it wrong. It’s just typical of the NFL’s officiating situation today.
New York fans left Candlestick Park feeling even more disconsolate than normal. Somehow they managed to blow a 24-point lead but dragged themselves back into the game. However, they didn’t count on the referees making a mess as usual and needlessly ruining the game. The Giants had a field-goal attempt with 46 seconds on the clock. It looked like they were going to win the game.
But the Giants fumbled the snap and couldn’t get the kick away. Matt Allen chucked the ball downfield where Rich Seubert caught it (via ESPN). Then the cruel punchline came. The referee flagged him as an ineligible receiver even though had had already checked in as eligible. Later, the NFL acknowledged their mistake and apologized. But the damage was done and the Giants were out of the playoffs.
“I don’t think you can take that one away from him,” John Madden reassured fans. However, Bill Carollo and his team didn’t hear him. Emanuel caught the ball after Shaun King passed it upfield. The wideout went to the ground and the ball brushed the surface but he never lost his grip on it. This made it perfectly legal in the eyes of everybody watching except for Carollo and co (via ESPN).
They needlessly agreed that it was an incomplete pass because the tip of the ball hit the ground. Then, the Rams snatched the game out of the Bucs’ hands and went to the Super Bowl. It was crushing for Emanuel and his teammates but there was nothing they could do. Eventually, the NFL clarified the rule but it was too late for Tampa Bay as they lost the NFC Championship Game.
Let’s be real, the Packers were lucky to win the Super Bowl in 1965. However, they benefited from a horrific piece of officiating that would never occur in the modern game. Video replays and microchip technology instantly confirm if a field goal was successful. However, in the old days, players had to trust the judgment of an official. When Don Chandler missed his game-tying kick against the Colts, his shoulders slumped.
But then to his disbelief, Jim Tunney signaled for a successful score. “I didn’t hit the ball real square on the field-goal kick and I was surprised it was called good,” Chandler told the Baltimore Sun in 1999. It was definitely outside the post when I picked up the flight. Bart Starr, the holder, always said it was inside and then curved away, but it was higher than the pipe.” The Packers took down Baltimore in overtime.
DeAndre Hopkins cut a frustrated figure after the Ravens crushed Houston in 2019. But it wasn’t just the result that left him in a bad mood. No, he was furious because Marlon Humphrey mauled him without a penalty. The Baltimore defensive back hung out of Hopkins and prevented him from making a crucial catch. It should have been ruled as pass interference.
However, inexplicably the officials failed to make the right call (via Bleacher Report). This left everybody shaking their heads in disbelief. Then, the Texans challenged the decision but it was upheld. This was worse than the original decision because it’s easy to make a mistake. It’s only human after all. But they had a chance to put it right and needlessly annoyed nearly every NFL fan in the world.
This was a tough day at the office for Aaron Rodgers and co. because the referee had it out for them. They must have said something to referee Ron Green before the game. That’s because the official and his team unnecessarily called against the Packers over and over again. Michael Adams tugged on Rodgers’ helmet before knocking the ball out of his hands. Then Karlos Danby scored the winning touchdown for Arizona.
But despite the obvious foul, the referee failed to call against Adams. Nor did he admonish Bertrand Berry for a helmet-to-helmet hit on the superstar quarterback. Meanwhile, Larry Fitzgerald shoulder-barged Charles Woodson out of the way en route to a score. However, the officials didn’t call for interference (via New York Times). Somebody should have checked Green’s betting slips before the game because this was suspicious.
There were dark rumblings of a potential fix after this controversial game in 2021. First, the officials needlessly handed Cleveland a penalty. They harshly penalized Eric Kendricks for holding because there was nothing in it. The Browns duly capitalized and scored their only touchdown of the game. But that wasn’t the end of the controversy because the Vikings suffered another terrible call.
Browns defensive back Greedy Williams clearly held Adam Thielen in the endzone (via Zone Coverage). The Vikings receiver was unable to make a play for the ball because he had the Cleveland player all over him. But for some inexplicable reason, the officials didn’t make a defensive pass interference call. It was much clearer than their decision against Kendricks but they managed the game like horses wearing blinkers.
This game has developed iconic status despite being a travesty of a spectacle. The Dolphins traveled to snowy Massachusetts for a clash with the Patriots. But a snowstorm covered Foxborough and created almost unplayable conditions. The players could barely see each other and plodded through the thick snow cover. The game remained scoreless until late into the fourth quarter when the Pats received a field goal attempt.
But then came the controversy. The snowplow operator came onto the field to clear a spot for kicker John Smith to take his shot (via L.A. Times). He was successful and in the end, the game finished 3-0 to New England. An enraged Dolphins head coach Don Shula complained because he thought that the Patriots received an unfair advantage. In fact, he wanted the NFL to void the game but they turned him down.
The Detroit Lions are well-versed in heartbreak but sometimes they don’t deserve it. In 2010, they trailed the Chicago Bears when it looked like they had snatch victory from the gaping maw of defeat. Shaun Hill launched a pass toward the endzone with 24 seconds left to play (via Detroit Free Press). Then, the Lions star wideout Calvin Johnson jumped up. He caught the ball with both hands before landing with one foot on the ground.
But he lost control of the ball when his other foot touched the turf. Initially, the officials awarded the touchdown and the Lions were delirious. But then they needlessly suffered a horrible disappointment. The officials conferred and decided that the touchdown wasn’t completed. Finally, the Lions lost the game. It took the NFL another eight years before they rewrote the rules to provide clarity upon the situation.
The Dallas Cowboys played the Green Bay Packers in the 2014 Divisional Playoffs. This game was turning into an instant classic because it was all action. However, the Cowboys fell behind in the fourth quarter as they trailed 21-26. But they didn’t give up and surged back upfield. Tony Romo found Dez Bryant with a beautiful pass the receiver carried expertly into the endzone (via Fox News).
Or so everybody except the officials thought. Somehow the referees disagreed and needlessly ruined the game. They claimed that Bryant lost control of the ball before he floored it. That’s despite everybody, including the opposition, thinking that he had scored a perfect touchdown. It was a horrible mistake and the Packers held on to win the game. Then they lost to the Seahawks in the NFC Title Game.
If there was a competition for the sketchiest single game in NFL history, then this would definitely be in contention. Super Bowl XL went down as an incredibly controversial occasion because of the number of dubious calls in favor of the Steelers. We don’t know what Mike Holmgren did to the referee before the game, but the officials had it out for the Seahawks.
There was the moment when they needlessly called Darrell Jackson for offensive pass interference after he fairly competed for the ball against Chris Hope (via Bleacher Report). One bad call is frustrating but several are infuriating. They awarded Ben Roethlisberger a touchdown even though his helmet crossed the line but not the ball. There were a few more decisions that caused Seahawks fans to gnash their teeth in rage.
This was a disaster from beginning to end because the officials simply were not good enough. The NFL referees went on strike so the league brought in a posse of unproven replacements. However, there was a stark difference in quality and it became clear that the new referees weren’t up to the task. It all came to a head when the Seahawks played the Packers in the NFC Divisional Round (via NBC Sports).
The Packers led 12-7 with eight seconds left in the game but it wasn’t over. Then, Russell Wilson desperately flung a Hail Mary toward the endzone. Golden Tate jumped up to catch it but so did Packers safety M.D. Jennings. In fact, anybody watching saw that Jennings intercepted the pass. However, the referees didn’t agree and awarded Tate the touchdown. But at least it ended the referee strike, right?
The NFL attempted to increase quarterback protection by bringing in new roughing the passer rules in 2018. However, the immediate rollout of this new system was a disaster. This was because the officials were inconsistent in their judgment. It also affected defensive players psychologically and may have inadvertently caused injuries. Officials averaged 11 roughing penalties over the first three weeks of the season (Sports Illustrated).
They often needlessly raised the flag because they were trying to follow the new interpretation of the rules. Dolphins’ defensive end William Hayes tore his ACL because he didn’t want to put his body weight on the Raiders’ QB David Carr when he sacked him. He felt that the new ruling disproportionately favored the quarterback. Over time, the roughing penalties were reduced, but the early weeks were a disaster.
The only reason why this one doesn’t feature higher on this list is that replay wasn’t available at the time. However, it did cause an entire franchise to leave their city. Bud Adams was determined to remove the Oilers from Houston but this put the nail in their coffin. They met the Steelers in the AFC Championship game and suffered a devastating loss. Mike Renfro should have had a touchdown but the officials needlessly ruled it out (via SBNation).
Late in the fourth quarter, QB Dan Pastorini found Renfro before the receiver fell out of bounds. It was an amazing catch because he ensured both feet stayed in bounds before he fell out. Unfortunately, the referee didn’t see it that way because he ruled against Renfro. This was six years before the introduction of the NFL video replay system. In the end, it cost the Oilers a Super Bowl appearance and their identity.
Houston narrowly defeated the Bills in the 2020 AFC Wildcard Game, but Buffalo felt aggrieved. They knew that the referee made a garbage call that turned the game on its head. The Bills faced a third-and-nine in overtime when the officials flagged Cody Ford. They unnecessarily cited him for an illegal blindside block because he didn’t do anything wrong. Meanwhile, Bills QB Josh Allen had scrambled for four yards.
Games are won by the finest of margins but the officials potentially robbed the Bills. What could have been a 56-yard field goal attempt turned into a Texans’ win. In 2021, NFL Senior VP of Officiating Training and Development Walt Anderson revealed in a training video that it was the wrong call (via New York Post). But somebody should tell Ford this because the NFL fined him $28,000.
‘America’s Team’ enjoyed a strong start to the 2021 season but it could have been even better. They played the reigning Super Bowl champions in Week One and were competitive for the entire game. In fact, they should have had the opportunity to win but the officials missed a crucial call on the third-down play. Dak Prescott threw a pass that the Bucs’ Lavonte David should have intercepted. Then David needlessly slammed his helmet down in a fit of rage.
Dallas correctly believed that they should receive an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. But it never came. Then, Antonio Brown scored a touchdown and the Bucs won the game by two points. It was a shocking display of incompetence by the referee because it was so obvious. Unfortunately, the Cowboys suffered the consequences of the NFL’s ineptitude (via SBNation).
This is one of the most notorious games in NFL history because it ignited a dynasty. The Patriots played the Raiders on a very snowy day in Foxborough. The conditions were so bad that the Raiders were barely visible on the field in their white uniforms. Oakland led into the fourth quarter of the divisional playoff game but there was a twist on the horizon. Tom Brady took possession in the fourth quarter but he fumbled (via WBUR).
However, the Patriots invoked the little-known Tuck Rule. Essentially, the referee ruled that it wasn’t a fumble because Brady had brought the ball back into his body and was in a throwing motion when Charles Woodson hit him. This was a moment that gained notoriety over time because of the Patriots’ reputation for cheating. In 2013, the NFL owners voted the Tuck Rule out because it needlessly caused controversy.
Every win counts for a team like Detroit. The Lions came into 2021 in dire form but they couldn’t catch a break. This came to a head against the Baltimore Ravens when the officials needlessly ruined their chance of victory. Lamar Jackson threw an incomplete pass after taking a snap that appeared to come after time expired. Then, Justin Tucker ambled onto the field to kick the winning, NFL record 66-yard field goal.
It was crushing for the Lions because they fought hard. They were so close to their first win of the season but it was snatched away from them. Head Coach Dan Campbell revealed his frustration with the NFL. “There’s nothing I can say to that because it’s the same thing,” he told the Detroit Free Press. “Tomorrow you’ll get an apology and it doesn’t mean anything. That’s life and that’s the hand we were dealt.”
This game saw arguably one of the most egregious officiating errors in NFL history. The Saints played the L.A. Rams in the NFC Championship game. The stakes were high because the teams were within touching distance of each other in the fourth quarter. Then, Rams’ corner Nickell Robey-Coleman led with his helmet hit Tommylee Revis. Everybody waited for a flag that never came (via Bleacher Report).
The Saints led 23-20 and would have been able to see the game out with under two minutes left. But instead, the Rams reclaimed possession. They sent the game to overtime with a field goal before a second kick won the game. Later, the NFL admitted that the officials messed up. Then, the Rams suffered a blowout loss against the Patriots. This rubbed salt into New Orleans’ wounds because they may have given the Pats a better game.