In what has been a one-sided rivalry of AFC superpowers, it appeared Sunday evening that the Pittsburgh Steelers had finally earned their moment of glory against New England, with homefield advantage in the playoffs as a reward. And then the NFL overturned tight end Jesse James' go-ahead touchdown with 29 seconds to play.
NFL SVP/officiating Al Riveron released a video Sunday night that explained the play's ruling. After showing the play, Riveron notes that James was going to the ground as he completed the apparent catch.
"That's the key here. [James] is going to the ground. By rule, to complete the process of the catch, he must survive the ground. And by that, we mean he must maintain control of the football," Riveron said. "He does put the ball over the goal line extended. Once he gets there, he loses control of the football and then the ball hits the ground. ... Therefore two things occur: He loses control of the football, and the ball touches the ground prior to him regaining control. Therefore, the ruling on the field of a touchdown was changed to an incomplete pass."
The NFL is in a tricky spot when it comes to the catch rule. Every Sunday, especially this Sunday across the league, it feels like multiple games are decided by interpretations of a rule that few broadcasters, much less fans, can anticipate. It did not help the confusion that the excellent CBS crew of Jim Nantz and Tony Romo didn't even consider that James' apparent touchdown might not be a catch until it was replayed many times and the game was delayed significantly.
"[James] lost complete control of the football. That was the ruling of the replay," referee Tony Corrente said in the pool report released after the game.
The decision to overturn the touchdown appears to be the correct interpretation of a rule, but these rules were written before the advent of multiple cameras, HD technology and the ability to slow down replays to microseconds to see a ball slightly move. The improvement in technology has come with unintended consequences and the move this season to centralize replay decisions in the New York office has not helped to simplify the rule to fans, at least not yet. (The phrase "No one knows what a catch is" has been heard plenty this season.)
Another correct interpretation of a controversial rule -- the tuck rule -- once benefitted the Patriots before the rule was eventually changed. It's always possible that the fine print of the catch rule could be revisited yet again this offseason by the Competition Committee. That won't be much consolation to Steelers fans, especially after Ben Roethlisberger's inexplicable decision to throw into triple coverage a few plays later.