The New England Patriots are headed to Super Bowl LIII, and they likely have Dee Ford’s left arm to thank.
During the final minute of the fourth quarter of Sunday night’s AFC Championship Game, the Patriots were driving in Kansas City Chiefs territory in need of a touchdown to keep their season alive. For a moment, it looked dead.
On a third-and-10 play from the Chiefs’ 34 yard line, Tom Brady thew a pass that tipped off Rob Gronkowski’s hands and into those of cornerback Charvarius Ward, who then fumbled the ball out of bounds. The interception would have given the Chiefs possession of the ball — up by four with 54 seconds left — with the opportunity to run out the clock and end game, if not for a yellow flag on the field.
The pivotal call was against Ford, the Chiefs’ Pro-Bowl outside linebacker, for having illegally lined up in the neutral zone, the ball-length space that extends to the sidelines. Replays appeared to confirm that the 27-year-old’s arm, if not his entire upper body, was over the plane when the Patriots snapped the ball.
The five-yard offsides penalty negated the interception and gave the Patriots new life.
Brady converted the resulting third and five on a 25-yard pass to Gronkowski and running back Rex Burkhead punched it in for the go-ahead touchdown on the following play (Burkhead also scored the AFC title-clinching touchdown in overtime).
After the game, Ford said the team collectively had “to be better, me especially on that play.”
“I got to see the ball,” the 27-year-old told reporters. “I got to see the ball, especially at the time of that game and, you know, what was at stake, I just got to see the ball.”
Ford’s costly penalty resulted in widespread social media criticism, as well as at least one humorous Wikipedia edit.
— Tommy Burnett (@membery137) January 21, 2019
Still, Ford said he was proud of his teammates for battling through adversity and sticking together, “even through this tough loss.” Asked what made the difference in Sunday’s game, he attributed the outcome purely to execution.
Chiefs coach Andy Reid told reporters during his postgame press conference Sunday night that he still needed to review the offsides penalty against Ford.
“Penalties become an issue, whether I think they’re questionable or not,” Reid said.
“We had an interception right there at the end to finish the game,” he continued. “One of the quickest outside linebackers in the National Football League they called offsides. I’ll take a peek at that and see what it looks like. We gave ourselves opportunities to finish the game.”
In a conference call Monday afternoon, Reid said he thought the flag was “legitimate,” though he suggested that officials typically give players notice before penalizing them for lining up offsides in such a big game.
“Normally you’re warned and the coach is warned if somebody is doing that before they throw it in a game of that magnitude,”Reid said, according to ESPN. “But they did. He didn’t waste any time doing it. He didn’t wait until the interception to throw it. He had his hand on the flag right from the get-go.’’