The Referees Stole the Show at End of Super Bowl LVI

Aaron Donald and the referees
Aaron Donald and the referees / Kevin C. Cox/GettyImages

The Los Angeles Rams beat the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl LVI on Sunday evening, 23-20. It was an exciting affair that effectively came down to the final possession. But Aaron Donald reminded everyone why he has legitimate claim to the title of best player in football, stopping the Bengals on third-and-one before forcing an incompletion on fourth and one to earn his first ring.

But in general, the ending of the game was marred by poor refereeing. This is not a new problem in the NFL by any means, and in the big picture the officials didn't do an awful job throughout the contest. In fact, for the first 58 minutes, there were virtually zero complaints outside of the brutal missed facemask on Tee Higgins that led directly to an important Cincinnati touchdown. That is admittedly significant, but even with that taken into account, the officials kept things consistent by swallowing their whistles for all but the most egregious offenses.

For whatever reason, that changed when the Rams drove down to the Bengals' goal-line, down by four points with two minutes to play. Los Angeles was against the ropes, facing a third-and-goal from the Cincinnati eight-yard line. They needed a touchdown in the next two plays. Matthew Stafford dropped back and targeted Cooper Kupp, but the pass was broken up by linebacker Logan Wilson-- but then the refs threw a flag for holding, gifting the Rams an automatic first down.

It was a bizarre call that literally nobody understood. Not even Al Michaels or Cris Collinsworth could make heads or tails of it.

That's weak in any context, much less when it comes after 58 minutes of the referees letting just about anything go. To make matters worse, there was an extremely blatant false start on every Rams offensive linemen except the center.

The officials then proceeded to throw flags on the next two plays. Those penalties were by and large justified, but it was jarring to suddenly see an avalanche of flags after a game largely absent of calls both good and bad. It stunk. It was no fun.

A neutral fan can admit that perhaps the karma balanced itself out, considering it's hard to imagine how the Bengals would have kept it close without their long Higgins touchdown only possible through the missed facemask. And that's the nature of football. The pendulum swings both ways, occasionally at the worst possible moment.

All that can be true while we call it as it is. It was not enjoyable to watch a pivotal Super Bowl play decided by a very, very close holding call that may not have affected the end result of the play in the first place. The Rams earned this victory, but everybody is allowed to wish the referees had less to do with it.