After a delay of just over 24 hours to ensure safe travels, the Buffalo Bills hosted the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 2023 Wild Card Round. On a cold evening with many fans standing on compressed snowbanks, the Bills defeated the Steelers to ensure that Patrick Mahomes’ first ever road AFC playoff game would be in Orchard Park, NY.
It’s hard to transition this to penalties as there weren’t all that many. So, without further delay...
Standard and Advanced Metrics
Apparently certain people felt that the Steelers were facing off against two opponents. This chart won’t dispel the notion that the officials were on the side of the Bills, what with the lopsided counts and all. It doesn’t help matters either that four of the six flags on Pittsburgh were called after they pulled within one score in the fourth quarter. In fact, three of those flags started immediately after Pittsburgh made that score and arguably helped Buffalo to another touchdown, setting them up with a 14-point lead again. Were the refs really on our side?
The yards don’t hurt or help the conspiracy theorists, as they closely follow the counts. Perhaps some more digging is warranted into the specific flags themselves, which is something I’ve been known to do. Before we get there, note that in counts and yards, this is one of the cleanest games of the season for Buffalo. Which, hey; I mean maybe that does help the conspiracy theorists.
The refs only called one penalty in the entire first half (see Buffalo’s flags below). Down by 14 to start the second half, Pittsburgh forced a quick punt from Buffalo and took over. They were called for two false starts, both on tight end Darnell Washington, on their way to a field goal. A deliberate attempt to sabotage the Steelers? Let’s take a look.
Man those refs. How dare they call a preposterously obvious false start to begin that drive? Arguably, yes the second one was a little more ticky-tack but admittedly the GIF software reduced the frame rate and it’s harder to see the hip lift than it is on the broadcast replay. As a Bills fan, I would put the second one in the gray area of “Would have been fine if it weren’t called.” The first one though? You need to call that. I don’t see any ref interference here. If the Steelers stalled and settled for a field goal due to false starts, they only have themselves to blame.
So what about the Bills’ touchdown drive after the Steelers made it a one-score game late? I said there were three flags between the Pittsburgh score and the Buffalo one. Let’s look at them too.
After the extra-point try, offensive tackle Dan Moore Jr. was flagged for unnecessary roughness. Assessed on the kickoff, it helped the Bills start their next drive at the 30. Okay, that’s not a huge advantage but how were the refs supposed to know that? They gave the Bills a shot at a return, right? Was the flag warranted?
Okay, fine. So that flag was warranted. What about the next two?
On the very first play of the drive, linebacker Myles Jack was called for defensive holding — giving the Bills five free yards. The officials huddled up for this one. Pass interference wasn’t called due to the ball being uncatchable, but was the eventual call of “holding” correct?
Yes, I can see why they’d call that. Note: There is no “uncatchable ball” exemption for defensive holding like there is for defensive pass interference. Not long after, Jack was also called for unnecessary roughness on 2nd & 5 after Josh Allen ran for three.
To be clear, this isn’t a dirty play by Jack but it is a penalty. Allen is clearly sliding, which means he’s protected. This is a strict liability flag so it either happened or it didn’t. For the Steelers fans that may be reading this, I did see the other angles and it’s true — there isn’t any contact to Allen’s head from the look of it. The rule is contact “to the head or neck area” and that did happen.
So let’s recap. Three flags. A slight advantage on a kickoff return. A five-yard bump on first down. A free 15 yards rather than a 3rd & 2 in Pittsburgh territory where it’s highly likely Buffalo picks up the first anyway. All three flags were legit too. In other words, minimal help for Buffalo on a drive where they benefited from half of the daily total for the Steelers’ penalties.
For our final flag, the illegal substitution came when the game was effectively over. All it did was make everyone stand in the cold a touch longer. The Steelers had 6.3 total Harm for those of you who follow the metric, which is suggestive of a day in which flags weren’t a big factor.
I’ll cut it short for the Bills’ recap this week just like Carl Cheffers cut penalties short on Buffalo. I think both flags were warranted and totaled 4.4 Harm on the day. For the penalty conspiracy theorists I’m confident the retort to the above will be that Carl Cheffers and his crew allowed Buffalo to get away with a ton of uncalled flags.
I’m open to that argument. If you think Buffalo got away with one (or many), provide a time stamp in the comments and I’ll try to take a look and weigh in as time permits.