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Officiating issues taking away from playoff race

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Another week, another set of questionable calls impacting NFL games.

Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

With tight playoff races in both conferences and a number of premium head-to-head matchups down the stretch, this should be a great time for the NFL. Instead, the focus is being taken away from the play on the field, while the officiating steals the show, due to crucial blown calls.

December has been a rough month for referee Jeff Triplette. He and his crew were heavily criticized in Week 13 when the head linesman incorrectly motioned for the chains to move late in the game between Washington and New York. Triplette signaled third down, but did not stop play, resulting in Washington running what it thought was a first down play, before the downs then shifted to fourth down. The NFL admitted Triplette handled the situation incorrectly.

Triplette was back in the headlines in Week 14 after he made a questionable call in the game between Cincinnati and Indianapolis. Cincinnati's BenJarvus Green-Ellis appeared to be stopped short on a fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line late in the second quarter. Green-Ellis was initially ruled down short of the end zone and replays appeared to confirm the call. Triplette, however, reversed the call and gave the Bengals a touchdown. (Video of the play can be seen here).

His explanation after the game did not help his cause, especially when most thought a defender touched Green-Ellis as he went down. Via Joe Reedy of the Cincinnati Enquirer:

Were there differing views among the officials about whether BenJarvus Green-Ellis was down initially?

Triplette: "There was discussion about whether the runner was touched down at the goal line or not."

What did you see in the review?

Triplette: "When we reviewed the video at the goal line, there was nobody touching him there, and then he bounced into the end zone."

What about the nose tackle? It appeared he might have had a shot at Green-Ellis...

Triplette: "I don't know about that, what position ... There was nobody that touched him at the goal line."

So you didn't look at whether anybody touched him in the backfield?

Triplette: "We looked at the goal line, (those) were the shots that we looked at."

There was a question about whether the nose tackle initially swiped at him and started him tripping...

Triplette: "We reviewed the goal line."

Not many NFL analysts agreed with Triplette's ruling. H/T to Josh Kirkendall of Cincy Jungle.

It wasn't just Triplette and his crew having issues in Week 14. In Baltimore referee Pete Morelli blew a review when he ruled Minnesota running back Toby Gerhart was not down, despite Gerhart's knee clearly being down before the ball came loose. Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier said he received a call from the NFL on Monday to discuss the game, including the fumble. Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson took to twitter to rip the officiating.

In New England a questionable pass interference call with less than a minute remaining played a signifcant role in the Patriots' comeback win. Cleveland's Leon McFadden was flagged for pass interference in the end zone, setting New England up a the 1-yard line. CBS analyst Steve Tasker said it was a "horrible call" during the broadcast. The Patriots scored on the next play to take a  27-26 lead.

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In San Francisco, officials threw several flags, but also made a crucial call during the third quarter of the 49ers' 19-17 win. Michael Crabtree caught a pass at the 49ers' 39-yard line and appeared to fumble before being down by contact. The ball was clearly recovered by Seattle deep in 49er territory, but officials initially ruled Crabtree was down by contact. The official pointed to the ground and tapped on his backside, motioning that Crabtree was down before the ball came out. Seattle attempted to challenge the call, but referee Clete Blakeman said the play could not be challenged because it was ruled Crabtree's forward progress had been stopped. This, despite a lack of a whistle and the fact the closest official had ruled down by contact.

Seattle's Richard Sherman was not pleased with the officiating and said it made the difference in the game.

"We didn't project it to be this way," Sherman said, via the 49ers' team website. "We expected to blow them out, but they got the benefit of a few calls tonight throughout the game, and that helps you especially on third down. We will see them again, and it will be a different result."

Asked if the return of Michael Crabtree made a difference, Sherman again focused on the officiating.

"It didn't make a difference," Sherman said. "It didn't make a difference at all. The penalties, that is what made the difference today."

It's not unusual for players, coaches and fans to complain about officiating, especially in a loss. It has, however, hit epidemic levels recently and the NFL has admitted to multiple blown calls. There could be drastic changes coming, at least if one anonymous quarterback is correct:

"I don't think it's any better than it was with replacement refs," the quarterback said, via Mike Sando of ESPN Insider. "There is a big blowup coming. Someone will screw it up in a playoff game and the Super Bowl and it will lead to a restructuring of the whole thing. It is not getting better."

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