The box score of the AFC championship game contained a disparity upon which conspiracy theorists were quick to seize: The New England Patriots had a glaring advantage over the Jacksonville Jaguars in the penalty department. Over the course of the game, the officiating crew cited the Patriots for just a single, 10-yard penalty — the fewest called on a team in a playoff game since the 2011 AFC championship game, which also happened to involve the Patriots. Meanwhile, the Jaguars were assessed six penalties for 98 yards, two of which had a significant impact on the game. A 15-yard penalty on Jacksonville strong safety Barry Church for unnecessary roughness and a 32-yard defensive pass interference on cornerback A.J. Bouye during the next play led to the Patriots’ first touchdown of the game.
That, of course, set social media buzzing with suggestions the officiating crew was biased.
While there is nothing concrete to support any claim that any league official is biased toward one team or another, it is possible to illustrate how the Patriots enjoyed a significant benefit in the penalty department this season.
New England was awarded 50 first downs via penalty, the most in the league during the regular season. They got six more in the playoffs, tying them with the Minnesota Vikings for the most this postseason. Their net penalty margin (27) and net penalty yard differential (313) rank second and first, respectively, when looking at the 2017 regular season and playoffs combined. The same ranks hold true for New England if you look at those three metrics on a per-game basis.
The Patriots also had the highest rate of offensive drives with one or more defensive penalties called on their opponent during the regular season, with nearly a third (52 out of 173, 32 percent) getting the benefit of at least one penalty. The Houston Texans were second (29 percent).
That high rate of penalties helped produce more points for New England. On regular-season plays in which the Patriots were beneficiaries of a penalty (playoff data is not available) the team scored 2.01 more points than expected based on the down, distance and field position of the play, the most in the NFL this season. That’s also the third-highest benefit since 2001, the year quarterback Tom Brady took over as the team’s starter, trailing only the 2015 Green Bay Packers (2.45) and 2013 Patriots (2.03).
Again, there is no evidence of bias here — in a 32-team league, someone has to be No. 1 in penalty differential — but we do know most of the officiating crew scheduled to call Super Bowl LII has favored New England in the games they have worked prior to Super Bowl Sunday.
Gene Steratore, the referee who used an index card to measure a first down during a Cowboys-Raiders game in December, will ref a Super Bowl for the first time in his career. The other officials for the game will be umpire Roy Ellison, down judge Jerry Bergman, line judge Byron Boston, field judge Tom Hill, side judge Scott Edwards and back judge Perry Pagnelli.
Since 2003, Steratore’s first year as an official, he has officiated 23 games involving the Patriots. Under his watch the team has received 49 percent of the penalties and 48 percent of the penalty yards awarded. The rest of the crew, however, have all worked in games where the Patriots, on the whole, received the majority of the calls.
|Official||Percentage of penalties in Patriots’ favor||Percentage of penalty yards in Patriots’ favor|
Beyond their advantage in the penalty department — whether through their impressive discipline or another more conspiratorial factor — their opponent, Philadelphia was one of the most-penalized teams in the NFL this year.
The Eagles’ penalty margin was the fourth-worst during the regular season (minus-15) and their net penalty yard differential ranked 21st (minus-45) during the regular season. During the playoffs, Philadelphia has been penalized eight times for 79 yards while its opponents have been flagged six times for 87 yards, both half as much as New England during the postseason.
|2017 NFL playoffs||Penalties||Penalty yards||Opponent penalties||Opponent penalty yards|
Having the penalty advantage is big, but having it in the Super Bowl is humongous. Since 2002, a team with the benefit of the penalty differential during the regular season won over 56 percent of their games. In the Super Bowl that jumps to a win rate over 73 percent, roughly the same we would expect from a team favored by a touchdown in the point spread.
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