Tomase: Pass interference numbers favoring Patriots are even crazier than you think

John Tomase
January 22, 2018 - 2:22 pm
Steelers safety Mike Mitchell and Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski

Charles LeClaire/USA Today Sports

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Late in the first half on Sunday, with the Patriots in danger of taking a 14-3 deficit into halftime, they turned to a play that has bailed them out all year.

Defensive pass interference.

Wide receiver Brandin Cooks streaked down the left sideline, blanketed by Pro Bowl corner A.J. Bouye, who rode Cooks out of bounds. Tom Brady's pass was underthrown, Cooks couldn't curl back to receive it, and the Patriots were in business at the Jacksonville 13.

The 32-yard penalty set up a James White TD scamper that provided life in a come-from-behind 24-20 victory.

It's a story that has repeated itself all season. 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.

The Jags howled about Sunday's discrepancy after being whistled six times for 98 yards and two monster pass interference calls, as well as an unsportsmanlike conduct foul for a helmet-to-helmet hit that KO'd Rob Gronkowski. The Patriots, meanwhile, committed just one penalty for 10 yards.

So what gives? Are the Patriots the beneficiaries of a leaguewide conspiracy involving sympathetic officials, or are they simply better coached and more disciplined than teams like Cincinnati, which led the league in DPI calls with 18, or the Jets, who allowed an NFL-worst 50 first downs via flags?

I'm not generally a proponent of conspiracy theories (exception: The Russians!), so I find it implausible that anyone in the league is actively looking to assist the Pats, the last team that needs the help.

There's no question, however, that pass interference calls have influenced a number of their victories, including Sunday's. Consider . . .

* In a 24-17 victory over the Jets on Oct. 15 that was notable for an overturned touchdown to tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, the Patriots halved a 14-0 deficit one play after safety Jamal Adams was whistled for pass interference on Gronkowski in the end zone, setting up a Dion Lewis 1-yard touchdown run. The penalty covered 24 yards.

* Two weeks later, the Patriots benefited from a 17-yard PI late in the first half against the Chargers, setting up Stephen Gostkowski for a field goal that gave them a 15-7 lead in a 21-13 victory.

* The biggest win of the year involved a pivotal pass interference call. Midway through the fourth quarter and trailing the Steelers 24-16, the Patriots lined up on third-and-3 from the Pittsburgh 44. Steelers corner Artie Burns was flagged for interfering with Gronkowski at the Steelers 21. The Patriots ended up kicking a field goal in the 27-24 victory that wasn't decided until replay overturned Jesse James' go-ahead touchdown.

* On Christmas Eve, the Bills were eventually outclassed in a 37-16 defeat, but they entered halftime tied at 13. Two pass interference calls led to points -- a 44-yarder defending Cooks late in the second quarter that preceded a field goal, and a 29-yarder on Gronkowski in the end zone that paved the way for Mike Gillislee's go-ahead plunge late in the third quarter.

* In addition to the call on Bouye, the Pats also picked up 36 yards late in Sunday's win when Jags corner Jalen Ramsey was caught mugging Cooks downfield. The Patriots didn't score, but moving out of their own territory allowed them to pin the Jags inside the 10 and switch field position before Danny Amendola's 20-yard punt return set up the winning drive at the Jacksonville 30.

The Ramsey penalty was noteworthy because it represented just the second time all year that the Pats didn't score on a drive with a defensive pass interference infraction. Including playoffs, 12 of the 14 calls in their favor have led directly to points.

And that speaks to what's really going on here. The Patriots gorge themselves on mistakes. You make a costly penalty, they almost always make you pay. Brady underthrowing the speeding Cooks with a chunk of yardage on the line is simply smart football. It's never pretty -- asking a defensive back to sprint stride for stride with a receiver and then not impede him when he tries to adjust to a ball thrown behind both of them feels particularly unfair -- but such is life.

The Jaguars will have the rest of the winter to reflect on this lesson, and if the Eagles aren't disciplined downfield in Super Bowl LII, they'll learn the hard way, too.

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