National Football League
Tom Brady's controversial non-fumble altered the course of the AFC Championship
National Football League

Tom Brady's controversial non-fumble altered the course of the AFC Championship

Published Jan. 22, 2017 11:37 p.m. ET

It was another Tom Brady fumble that wasn't.

Fifteen years after the Tuck Rule, the New England Patriots were the winners of a dicey, controversial instant-replay review of a would-be fumble by their future Hall of Fame quarterback. This time -- coming early in the third quarter of Sunday's AFC championship game against the Pittsburgh Steelers -- wasn't a definitive game-changer like the "incomplete pass" of a decade-and-a-half ago, but considering when it happened and what happened after, it was a pivotal moment that was the catalyst for a one-score game turning into a blowout.

Brady ran a quarterback sneak on third-and-inches with New England up 17-9 at the start of the second half. It's one of the most effective plays in the NFL; Brady always picks the right gap and wiggles through almost every time. He appeared to have done it again, but there was a furious scrum at the end of the play with Pittsburgh players pointing in the other direction, indicating they'd recovered a Brady fumble. Indeed, they'd come out of the pile with the football.

Officials disagreed, awarding New England a first down. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin challenged and, in the moment, it appeared to be a frivolous decision. The first and second replays offered nothing to suggest there was a fumble. But another replay, seen during the review, showed otherwise. As Brady was falling to the turf, the ball popped loose and fell to the ground. Given that the fumble was clear and Pittsburgh had the ball at the end of the play, a reversal was surely coming. It was like one of those touchdown replays where you can't necessarily see the ball crossing the plane on one replay but if you piece together two or three other shots you reach a definitive conclusion.


Not this time. Referee Terry McAulay came out from the under the hood and upheld the play. How? Brady fumbled, right? And McAulay had said that Pittsburgh had clearly recovered the ball?

Not quite. Brady did fumble, yes, and McAulay did say the words "clear recovery" but he wasn't declaring that as the call on the field. He said it while explaining Pittsburgh's challenge. So, when the replay didn't show any clear recovery (and it didn't), the call has to stand. In order to reverse there has to be indisputable evidence of both.

But this is a problem that presents itself all too many times in the NFL, most notably 15 years ago when this very quarterback was involved in one of the most famous plays in NFL history. The review that overturned Brady's fumble after a sack by Charles Woodson was, by definition, correct. The tuck rule had existed for years, and that play was a textbook example of it. This play was also officiated correctly as per the rulebook.

Just like with Dez Bryant catches, the eyes are a better judge than any semantic parsing. Brady fumbled the ball and Pittsburgh recovered -- as much as you can tell that any team has recovered a fumble when one ton of football players is grabbing, squeezing, holding and fighting for a ball at the bottom of a pile. Forget the rule -- this was a fumble, just like on that snowy night 15 years ago.

The always-evolving NFL rulebook said otherwise, though. New England kept the ball, kicked a field goal to go up 20-9 and then scored 19 unanswered points to take a 36-9 lead early in the fourth quarter. What could have been a one-score game with Pittsburgh having the ball turned into a blowout. This time, though, it likely wouldn't have mattered. New England was the better team playing the better game. Even if the Steelers had managed a touchdown to tie the game at 17, this was the Pats' game to lose -- not that that's any consolation to angry Pittsburgh fans.


Get more from National Football League Follow your favorites to get information about games, news and more