A run is a run, a basket is a basket and a goal is a goal.
In the NFL, a catch isn’t necessarily a catch, and a touchdown isn’t always a touchdown.
A runner can inch the nose of the football over the goal line and even if it’s subsequently batted away, it’s a touchdown.
Cue the celebration.
A receiver can cross the goal line, get up and spike the ball. But if the football shifted just a hair as he hits the ground, it’s just as if the pass went right through his hands.
So, that apparent Jesse James TD grab that capped a two-play, 79-yard drive in 24 seconds to upend the Patriots and put the Steelers on the inside track to home-field advantage through the AFC playoffs?
Right, just a mirage.
“People are saying a runner breaking the plane causes the ball to become dead … which is true,” tweeted Mike Pereria , a former head of NFL officials. “BUT the receiver does not become a runner until he completes the process of the catch. TOTALLY DIFFERENT.”
Whether or not it passes the eye test, James didn’t pass the NFL’s “bright line,” as fellow former NFL head official Dean Blandino pointed out.
“If you are going to the ground to make the catch, you have to hold onto the ball when you land,” Blandino tweeted. “He isn’t a runner until he completes the catch, so goal line is not a factor. It’s an incomplete pass.”
James’ touchdown was overturned and the Patriots didn’t fall for Ben Roethlisberger’s fake spike two plays later, intercepting his pass into the end zone to seal their 27-24 win. That secured New England’s ninth consecutive division title and put the Patriots (11-3) back in the driver’s seat for the all-important top seed in the AFC playoffs.
The Oakland Raiders saw their postseason party invite all but rescinded with a 20-17 loss to the Dallas Cowboys, who kept their playoff hopes alive by the slimmest of margins.
Dak Prescott converted a fourth-down sneak by the width of an index card to set up Dan Bailey’s go-ahead field goal. Then Derek Carr fumbled the ball inches from the goal line with 31 seconds left when he reached for the pylon and lost his grip on both the football and the Raiders’ season.
Other notable calls in Week 15 included the Vikings bringing in Teddy Bridgewater for his first action in nearly 16 months; and the Packers putting Aaron Rodgers back under center for the first time in two months.
The Panthers spoiled Rodgers’ return from a broken collarbone with a 31-24 win over the Packers thanks to two TD grabs by Damiere Byrd, the first of which was initially ruled an incompletion. Officials overturned the call by ruling that Byrd’s buttocks had landed inbounds.
Rodgers threw three interceptions.
“It’s not the fairy tale that we were hoping,” Rodgers said. “As I lay in that surgery bed eight weeks ago, obviously I saw it going a little differently. But we’ve had a great run around here, and as long as I’m around here I’m confident that we’ll be in the mix every single year.”
Just like Tom Brady is in New England.
The weekend’s marquee matchup was Patriots-Steelers, and it didn’t disappoint, even though Steelers star Antonio Brown hobbled off the field early on with a torn calf.
It appeared the Steelers were going to beat the Patriots for the first time since 2011 when James caught Roethlisberger’s catch and stretched his 6-foot-7 frame across the goal line. But the score was overturned.
“As he hit the ground, the ball began to roll and rotate, and the ball hit the ground,” referee Tony Corrente said afterward. “That’s the end of it at that point.”
The end for Pittsburgh came moments later. Rather than spiking to stop the clock and set up a chip-shot field goal for Chris Boswell to send the game into overtime, Roethlisberger nodded to wide receiver Eli Rogers.
At the snap Rogers ran a short crossing route a couple of yards deep in the end zone. Roethlisberger’s pass caromed off Eric Rowe and into the hands of safety Duron Harmon .
“Maybe they wanted a field goal,” Roethlisberger said. “Maybe they wanted to tie it. Maybe that’s on me. Maybe I should have just clocked it, whatever it is. We’re not going to look back and second-guess anything or anybody.”
That wasn’t the case in Oakland, where an odd fourth-down measurement with help of an index card helped Dallas keep its playoff chances going just as Zeke Elliott returns from his six-game suspension.
“We made it by the thickness of the card,” said Cowboys coach Jason Garrett, who decided to go on fourth-and-1 from his 39 with about five minutes left in a tie game.
Prescott ran into a pile that took officials time to untangle.
Referee Gene Steratore then called for the chains to come out, but even that wasn’t clear. He then tried to slide what appeared to be a folded index card between the tip of the ball and the end of the chain. When the card didn’t slide through, Steratore signaled a first down for Dallas (8-6). He said he had decided it was a first down before the odd measurement.
“The final decision was made visually. The card was used nothing more than a reaffirmation of what was visually done,” he told a pool reporter. “My decision was visually done based on the look from the pole.”
That explanation didn’t satisfy Raiders coach Jack Del Rio.
“I had a different viewpoint,” Del Rio said. “I saw air.”
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With contributions from AP Pro Football Writer Josh Dubow and AP Sports Writer Will Graves.