On what could potentially be a record cold Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium, one of the NFL officials involved with the Deflategate investigation will lead the officiating team.
Clete Blakeman will cap his 11th season as an NFL official with a second-straight AFC Championship game, this one a 6:40 p.m. kickoff in Kansas City, where Sunday night’s low temperature is forecast to be a scant 6 degrees. Past history has a majority of New England aware the game footballs will thus be softer than normal, given the chill will contract the air and lower their internal pressure.
Blakeman, hopefully, has learned that lesson as well. He was one of the two officials who measured the PSI in the footballs at Gillette Stadium during halftime of the 2014-15 AFC Championship game between the Patriots and Colts, his determinations ultimately costing Tom Brady four games to start the 2016 season and the Patriots two draft picks, including a first-rounder.
Blakeman’s name was thus all over the Wells Report castigating the Patriots, the Wells Report in Context exonerating them, and any number of pieces in circulation livid that the Patriots — who’ll likely be underdogs for the first time in a game started by Brady since September 2015 — will have something else to overcome on Sunday.
What’s getting less mention is that fact about this being Blakeman’s second-straight AFC Championship game. As in he was the referee for last season’s Patriots comeback victory over Jacksonville, a game in which six of the seven accepted penalties went against the Jaguars. Those six included a pair of defensive pass interference calls, a penalty called against Jacksonville just five other times all year.
“The stats speak for themselves,” Jacksonville defensive tackle Malik Jackson told ESPN.
“You all see it,” said cornerback A.J. Bouye, who felt the Patriots had multiple infractions that weren’t called. “I got players hitting me up in the NFL saying the same thing.”
And that was just the start of the gripes from the vanquished.
Last year’s AFC Championship game was Blakeman’s third Patriots game since Deflategate. According to Pro Football Reference data, he also refereed a 2015 blowout of Dallas at Gillette and the Jets’ Week 16 upset (in which they were called for six of the seven accepted penalties) that helped cost New England the No. 1 seed that year. He was also the referee for this season’s Week 3 debacle in Detroit, a lopsided loss with no real notable referee involvement.
Blakeman does hold one other dubious spot in Patriots history: It was his crew that officiated the 2013 Monday Night game in Carolina that the Patriots lost 24-20 when Rob Gronkowski, manhandled in the end zone, didn’t get a pass interference call he appeared to deserve.
While Blakeman was the referee that night, getting an expletive-spiced earful from both Brady and backup QB Ryan Mallett as he left the field, it was back judge Terrence Miles who threw the initial flag on the play and picked it up. Blakeman was not involved in the conference, merely getting the decision from Miles and announcing the end of the game.
Miles, it should be noted, was named back judge for this year’s Super Bowl on Tuesday. Leading the crew in Atlanta will be 19-year NFL official John Parry, who was at the helm in Pittsburgh when the Patriots committed 14 penalties and lost last month.
Patriots fans still uneasy with the choice of the 54-year-old Blakeman can take some solace in the fact Kansas City fans aren’t completely at peace with him either. Blakeman’s team was in charge of the 54-51 offensive showpiece that the Chiefs lost to the Rams in November, with that game’s “all-star officiating team” widely panned. Blakeman’s crew was supplemented with officials from other crews for the high-profile assignment, and the game ended up with 21 accepted penalties and multiple questionable decisions.
According to Football Zebras, this will be Blakeman’s ninth postseason assignment, a run which includes Super Bowl 50.