Why opposing fans and players think NFL refs are favoring the Patriots

"The stats speak for themselves."

DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 12:  Quarterback Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots shakes hands with referee Walt Coleman #65 as he warms up before a game against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on November 12, 2017 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)
Tom Brady shakes hands with referee Walt Coleman as he warms up before a game last November against the Denver Broncos in Denver. –Justin Edmonds / Getty Images

It may come as a surprise to Patriots fans — many of whom in recent years have perceived an NFL conspiracy against them — to hear that around the rest of the league many of suspicious of a pro-New England bias. And this season has seen perhaps the pinnacle of the grumbling.

Take, for example, after last month’s AFC Championship game.

The Patriots were called for just one penalty — a ten-yard holding call on a kickoff — while the Jaguars were flagged six times for 98 yards, including a controversial 32-yard pass interference call on cornerback A.J. Bouye with less than 90 seconds lefts in the second quarter, which set up a crucial James White touchdown to cut Jacksonville’s 11-point lead to four points before the end of the half.

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“I need to go look at the rulebook on [pass interference penalties], because you’re telling me the receiver can have his hands on me the whole way down the field, but if I look for the ball and try to protect myself from being pushed, it’s a flag?” Bouye complained after the game, according to ESPN.

The cornerback was equally incensed about an apparent non-call on Patriots wide reciever Danny Amendola, who he said head-butted Jaguars safety Tashaun Gipson.

“Right after the whistle was blown,” Bouye said. “Right in front of them. I’m just asking how you going to let them do that?”

According to the NFL, the single flag thrown on the Patriots were the fewest penalties called on a team in a playoff game since the 2011 AFC Championship, when none other then the Patriots were called for just one penalty in a win against the Ravens.

“The stats speak for themselves,” Jaguars defensive end Malik Jackson said, according to ESPN.

Going back one game earlier, the Patriots opponents also had complaints about the officiating after their loss.

“That one goes down in history,” since-fired Tennessee Titans coach Mike Mularkey said of a questionable offensive pass interference call on wide receiver Eric Decker in the second quarter, which forced the team to punt. The Patriots would go on to take the lead on the ensuing possession, and never gave it back.

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In the 35-14 win, the Patriots were flagged four times for 37 yards, while the Titans were hit with 10 penalties for 62 yards.

And don’t forget the controversially — though also likely correctly — overturned touchdowns from which the Patriots benefited not once, not twice, but three times this season.

Patriots backers dismiss the claims of favoritism as cherry-picked anecdotes from jealous haters.

“It’s dumb,” former safety Rodney Harrison said this week when asked about the Patriots’ alleged preferential treatment. “Everyone hates us.”

But outside of the individual games, are there any numbers to substantiate the increasing complaints?

According to nflpenalties.com, the Patriots have been called for the second-fewest flags per game over the course of the 18 games they’ve played this season, while they’ve benefited from the eighth most flags per game. As a result, they have are No. 1 in the NFL for the most net penalty yards at +17.39 yards a game.

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A few outlets have also taken a closer look at the subject.

According to the Washington Post, the Patriots had the highest rate of offensive drives (32 percent) with one or more defensive penalties called on their opponent this regular season. And as WEEI recently examined, the team has cashed in on those flags:

No team converted more first downs via penalties (50) than the Patriots. No team recorded more automatic first downs (43). No team gained more yards on defensive pass interference (355). Only four clubs drew more PI calls than the Pats’ 14.

On the flip side, no team allowed fewer first downs by penalty (23), and only two were flagged for fewer defensive pass interference calls than New England’s six, per nflpenalties.com.

In an article Monday, The Ringer dug even further into the penalty stats and, among a number of interesting data points, found that the Patriots’ penalty differential “manifests predominantly in close games.”

From 2011 through the 2017 conference championships, in the 74 games in which the fourth quarter either began or ended with the two teams within eight points of each other, the Patriots were called for 24 percent fewer penalties than their opponents. That disparity was the largest in the league, according to The Ringer.

Meanwhile, in 55 non-close games, the Patriots were reportedly middle of the pack, flagged at a 2 percent higher rate than their opponents.

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So is it a officiating conspiracy, intentional or otherwise? Perhaps the discrepancy is result of the Patriots’ own success.

“This is a superstar-driven league,” Fox Sports pundit Jason Whitlock argued last October.

“Do basketball superstars get calls? Do Major League Baseball hitting stars or pitching stars get balls and strikes favor to them because it’s in the ref’s mind who they’re out there refereeing? That’s what goes on with the New England Patriots,” Whitlock said. “It’s been going on for years.”

Or perhaps — just maybe — Patriots coach Bill Belichick is so obsessed with minimizing penalties that it results in a noticeable difference in the stats book.

According to The Ringer, which interestingly published something of a rebuttal Thursday to its previous analysis, Belichick’s emphasis on curtailing flags has been long held, and the coach has worked to realize that goal through his granular knowledge of the rulebook and his emphasis on preparation.

“He always talks about mental toughness, about executing,” Patriots defensive back and captain Devin McCourty said in a press conference last week following the Patriots’ win against the Jaguars.

“The focus of not having penalties at practice — obviously we don’t have refs, so there’s not a flag going every time you commit a penalty, but with the coaches being on it about our technique and our fundamentals and not messing that up, and that allows you to play penalty-free, but still play aggressively,” McCourty said.

“We always try to work to eliminate penalties,” Belichick said at a press conference last week.

Sometimes those things happen but, as you said, a lot of those penalties are caused by bad technique or just lack of concentration or sloppy football,” he said. “We certainly are always trying to stamp those out.”

So, either the Patriots have achieved that goal to a higher degree compared to the rest of the league or they’re the beneficiaries of a grand league-wide fix. And if the latter is the case, the question the becomes: To what end?