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Penalty recap: New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills

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It wasn’t just a tight game score wise, penalties didn’t drastically skew things either way.

Deep breaths, Buffalo Bills fans. Now remember, the idea of penalty harm is to review what was called and rate the impact on the game. I say that because there’s been a lot of conversation on picked up flags and no-calls. While those can impact the game for sure, it’s “penalty” harm not “shoulda been penalty” harm.

That’s not a defense of the refs either. Despite me defending a certain decision I felt they had a lousy game. Live, I thought that there were missed flags on both teams and Bills Mafia has certainly dug up proof on one side of the ledger. Let’s take a look at what was called. If I didn’t cover something you’re curious on, drop a comment and I’ll try to get to it.


Standard and Advanced Metrics

Penalty Count

For assessed count (left-hand columns) both the Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots were essentially average. The true count includes offset and declined. There were seven between the two teams, which is closing in on double the expected. Both teams were a little more penalty prone than the league average and got “lucky” enough to have flags offset.

As an aside, the league average trended up by 0.04 flags per team per game. Despite that, it’s a safe bet the rate will continue to fall and eventually settle closer to the 6.68 flags per team per game of 2018.

Penalty Yards

According to standard metrics, the Bills got the worse end of the flags. With both teams assessed at eight flags each, the extra 18 yards the Bills suffered puts them a solid chunk above league average. The Patriots, on the other hand, were a touch below average.

For true yards, the Bills negated an extra 12 yards while the Patriots negated nine. In that regard, there’s very little difference and the overall gap in yardage between the two teams remained about the same.

Penalty Harm

New England Patriots

A lot of these were boo-boos, landing under 1.0 Harm. Patrick Chung’s pass-interference flag was offset by Mitch Morse’s ineligible-downfield flag. Deatrich Wise’s offside was offset by holding on the part of Dion Dawkins. Jonathan Jones’s unnecessary roughness call was offset by holding on Dion Dawkins (again).

I’ve seen a lot of fans conclude that the offsetting penalties were proof that the refs favored the Patriots. So let’s look at all of them, starting with the Wise/Dawkins one.

In addition to those, there’s not much to say about false start (two of those) and the illegal use of hands on Elandon Roberts. That flag occurred after Frank Gore ripped off a large chunk of yards and merely tacked on a few more.

Our old friend Stephon Gilmore was called for two flags. His pass interference was declined as the catch was made. In these cases coaches elect to decline the flag so their players can keep the stats. The holding call didn’t go so well. In addition to the five assessed yards, it wiped out a nine-yard sack and gave up two free downs. That’s 0.5 + 0.9 + 2.0 for 3.4 Harm.

A flag for too many men on the field became a free play for Josh Allen. Kudos to the Bills for recognizing that. Even though Allen couldn’t make them pay directly, the five-yard penalty also gave up two free downs for 2.5 Harm.

Tom Brady’s intentional grounding was assessed for ten yards and one down for 2.0 Harm. Yes there should have been at least one more of these.

Matthew Slater’s unsportsmanlike conduct occurred on special teams and was yardage only for 1.5 Harm. Slater was pushed out of bounds by Buffalo as a gunner (which is legal) and decided to run about 50 yards while still out of bounds (which is not).

Kyle Van Noy was called for unnecessary roughness when the Bills faced second-and-nine at the New England 16. One free down and half the distance to the goal worked out to 1.8 Harm. Let’s look at this, remembering that it happened right after Allen exited.

The Patriots had 12.7 Harm total, which is indicative of a game where penalties were somewhat of an issue. Based on the penalties called, there’s a high number of 15-yarders. An offset flag and the field position on the Van Noy one limited some of the direct damage from fairly dirty play.

Buffalo Bills

Most of these don’t have a deeper story. We’ve covered the three offset above. Lee Smith was called for two false starts. Along with the one from Ty Nsekhe and the Matt Barkley delay of game there’s a fair amount of negligible flags. Siran Neal was called for an illegal block on special teams, which was yardage only.

Lee Smith’s holding call wiped out a five-yard run in addition to the ten assessed for 1.5 Harm. Smith had a busy day. Two flags in one game is rare, let alone the hat trick. Note Dawkins and Gilmore both also had two, making this a weird day.

Oh yeah, Mitch Morse did too. On an offensive holding call he negated a seven-yard scramble by Allen, was flagged for nine based on the spot of the foul and wiped out a first down on third for two negated downs. Added up that comes to 3.6 Harm. Let’s take a look at this pair of offset penalties.

Tre’Davious White has the distinction of worst penalty (by harm) for either team. His defensive pass interference flag was assessed for 27 yards and gave up three free downs as the Patriots were attempting a fourth-down conversion. That comes out to 5.7 Harm.

I promised we’d look at all the offset penalties so here’s the other half of the Jonathan Jones/Dion Dawkins offsetting penalties. I assume at this point we’ve all seen Jones’s hit enough times so let’s focus on Dawkins. You may want to freshen up on your holding rules before you do though.

This one I’ll discuss. The other two offset are all very clearly penalties. This one is a little more gray area as the defender is losing his balance already. There are other angles of this, but it’s clear that Dawkins gives a little tug to help the defender to the ground, which is one of three specific examples of offensive holding in the rule book. It’s a gray-area penalty, but certainly not a bad call.

The Bills ended with 13.8 Harm, slightly worse than the Patriots but not significantly so. And while I still don’t feel the refs had a great game there’s not a great case to be made that they tossed any flags that weren’t earned.