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.