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As much as the NFL is a place where coaches exert remarkable control by endlessly analyzing and quantifying their complex game and preparing their players for multiple variables, sometimes a game just boils down to who gets the timeliest stroke of good fortune – an element beyond anyone's control.
Bills tight end Shawn Nelson caught a short pass at his 45 and was digging for more as a pile of Ravens defenders held him up, actually lifting him off the ground. It appeared his forward progress had been stopped, but the whistle didn't blow, Ray Lewis pawed at the ball and it came out. Lewis grabbed it and held it aloft.
The Bills had driven 68 and 59 yards for score on their previous two possessions, and they were on the move again, having picked up a first down at their 41. Seldom have 71,220 fans made less noise. The Ravens had been up 10 in the fourth quarter, but they were in trouble now. Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick was picking them apart and only needed one or two more big plays to set up a game-winning field goal attempt.
My two cents, I think Fitzpatrick had the momentum and confidence at that point to make enough plays to finish off the upset. But then Nelson fumbled, and with the Bills also committing an unnecessary roughness penalty on the play, the Ravens suddenly had the ball within Cundiff's range. They celebrated his game-winner four plays later. Talk about sudden death.
Mike Pereira, the former NFL head of officials who now analyzes close calls on NBC, defended the call, explaining that Buffalo linemen were still pushing the pile forward even though Nelson had been stopped, thus the appropriate lack of a whistle.
But – this is key -- it doesn't matter whether the call was right or wrong. What matters is it was close, complicated, subject to several areas of scrutiny and interpretation. That means it could have gone either way. It was a jump ball. If the Ravens had lost possession under the same circumstances, their fans would still be screeching today.
Countless calls fall into that category every Sunday, and between the myriad rules now governing the game, the mystical vagaries of the instant replay mechanism and the now-standard digitized camera views that pinpoint game details like never before, you never know whether you're going to get good or bad news. And sometimes, having the truth on your side isn't as important as having a bit of luck.
The Dolphins thought they had beaten the Steelers Sunday when Ben Roethlisberger fumbled at the goal line late in a close game in Miami, but the call went the other way for reasons too complicated to describe, either here or in a master's thesis, mystifying all involved.
I loved what Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said when asked how it felt to win that way. "We will take it and exit stage left," he said. It's not often that Bugs Bunny gets quoted in a pro football locker room. But it was somehow appropriate, given the near-comic level of uncertainty that now prevails after so many close calls.
Predictably, conspiracy theorists stormed out of the woods complaining that the league wants the Steelers to win and made sure it happened, but that is a bunch of bunk. The Steelers needed luck on their side and it was there, at least on this Sunday.
The Ravens should feel the same way. You could ask 10 different officiating crews to judge Nelson's fumble in real time, and they wouldn't all agree. The call was close. The Ravens got this one. They might not get the next one. You just take it and exit stage left. Th-th-that's all, folks.
John Eisenberg *covers the Ravens for Comcast SportsNet Baltimore. He worked in the newspaper business for 28 years as a sports columnist, with much of that time coming at the Baltimore Sun. While working for the Sun, Eisenberg spent time covering the Ravens, among other teams and events, including the Super Bowl, Final Four, World Series and Olympics. Eisenberg is also the author of seven sports-themed books.*