|Controversy thrives in Patriots-Raiders encounters
By Peter Lawrence-Riddell
FOXBORO, Mass. -- The playoff history of the Patriots and the Raiders has another controversial call. Since 1976, Patriots fans have lamented a "phantom" roughing the passer penalty on Ray "Sugar Bear" Hamilton that helped Oakland get past the Patriots and into the AFC championship game.
For Patriots fans, memories of that play might have been forever erased Saturday, while Raider fans now have a "phantom" play of their own.
Trailing 13-10, and facing first-and-10 from the Raiders' 48-yard line with less than two minutes remaining, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was hit by Charles Woodson, losing the football. Raiders linebacker Greg Biekert fell on the ball with 1:43 remaining and the play was ruled a fumble on the field, essentially ending the game.
However, amid jubilation on the Raiders' sideline and dejection on the Patriots', the call came from upstairs that the play was being reviewed. At first glance, it seemed certain the ruling would be that Brady fumbled the football. He had pumped the ball, appearing to try tucking it away, when Woodson knocked the football loose.
After a number of minutes and plenty of head scratching, the play was ruled an incomplete pass. The ruling of referee Walt Coleman: while Brady was trying to tuck the ball, his arm was moving forward, thus the play was ruled an incomplete pass. This was based on Rule 3, Section 21, Article 2, Note 2 of the NFL rule book: "...any intentional forward movement of [the passer's] arm starts a forward pass, even if the player loses possession of the ball as he is attempting to tuck it back toward his body."
Explained Coleman to a pool reporter, "When I got over to the replay monitor and looked it was obvious that his arm was coming forward, he was trying to tuck the ball and they just knocked it out of his hand. His hand was coming forward, which makes it an incomplete pass."
Asked to explain what it would have taken for it to be ruled a fumble, Coleman said, "He would have had to have brought it all the way in and got it all the way underneath his arm in order for it (to be a fumble)."
After the game, the Raiders couldn't hide their disappointment and bewilderment and it's likely that no explanation from Coleman or the league will satisfy Oakland. "I don't understand how that play is looked at," Raiders coach Jon Gruden said. "But I thought it was a fumble."
Woodson, who had as good a look at the play as anybody on the field, was far less judicious, saying simply "It's bull----. I thought it was bull---- call. It never should have been overturned."
"Unbelievable that (Coleman) could sit there and look at it that many times and still get the wrong call," Woodson added.
While trying to say the right thing, Jerry Rice couldn't hide the disappointment in his voice. "I think we did enough to win this game," he said, "It just didn't work out that way. I'll let you guys say why."
While it is overly simple to pin the "why" Rice was alluding to on one play, 26 years from now Raiders fans will remember this play the same way Patriots fans remember the "phantom" sack.
For all the heroics of Adam Vinatieri and his two critical field goals, this game will be remembered for the fumble that wasn't.
Peter Lawrence-Riddell is the assistant NFL editor for ESPN.com.