The Las Vegas Raiders were down to their final seconds and last shreds of hope with Derek Carr at the controls, trailing by a touchdown. With about a minute remaining, Carr converted a pair of third-and-longs to take his team inside the Cincinnati Bengals’ 10-yard line.
Carr slowly trudged toward the sideline, his season over and future uncertain, as a stadium packed with more than 66,000 celebrated a long-awaited victory.
The leading man in this AFC first-round matchup was a 25-year-old quarterback who has turned around a fledgling offense in only his second NFL season. Continuing a run he started in the regular season, Joe Burrow completed 70.6 percent of his passes for 244 yards and two touchdowns to solidify his place among the NFL’s elite.
“We got all the faith in the world in Joe, so there’s never any panic on our end,” Bengals Coach Zac Taylor told reporters afterward. “Had we been down seven at the end of the game, had they scored there to tie it and we had to go kick a field goal to win it, I promise you my heart rate was as even as can be just because I trust our players.
“I knew someone was going to step up and win that game for us.”
But the spotlight for much of the game Saturday was cast not on Burrow or Carr — whose errant passes were exacerbated by drops from his receivers, penalties on his offensive line and bizarre gaffes by the Raiders’ special teams — but rather the officiating crew that botched two calls, one of which led to a Bengals score.
In the second quarter, with Cincinnati leading 13-6, a whistle was blown just after Burrow scrambled on third down in the red zone and sailed a pass to wide receiver Tyler Boyd in the back of the end zone. Boyd didn’t celebrate; he was waiting for a call that never came. Raiders defenders looked around with confusion, too, and immediately NBC’s cameras replayed Burrow’s scramble, thinking he might have stepped out of bounds.
After a lengthy meeting on the field, officials ruled the play a touchdown.
“That is not a reviewable play,” former NFL official and current NBC analyst Terry McAulay said on the network’s broadcast. “Once they’ve ruled him out of bounds, it’s over. They also can’t fix the erroneous whistle. What they should’ve done, because it was an erroneous whistle, was actually replay the down because it was a loose ball in flight.”
NFL senior vice president of officiating Walt Anderson said via a pool report that the officials “did not feel that the whistle was blown before the receiver caught the ball.”
Anderson said it was confirmed that Burrow threw the ball before stepping out of bounds and that Boyd caught it while in bounds. But an erroneous whistle is not a reviewable play, Anderson said, corroborating McAulay’s explanation.
So the Bengals expanded their lead at the time to 20-6.
“I definitely, definitely never heard a whistle,” Taylor told reporters with a smile after the game.
But the officials’ confusion continued and reached a head in the third quarter during a pass by Burrow that Ja’Marr Chase caught along the right sideline.
Raiders cornerback Casey Hayward called for a timeout before the snap after seeing that his team had 12 players on the field. That 12th player didn’t sprint to the sideline in time, so a flag was thrown. But the play went off, Burrow unleashed a pass to Chase, another flag was thrown behind the line of scrimmage for roughing by Raiders defensive end Maxx Crosby, and after yet another lengthy conversation on the field, referee Jerome Boger ruled Las Vegas had called a timeout.
Cue the boos.
Cue the ire from Taylor on the sideline.
The one-score game may always lead to fingers pointed toward the officials, but the Raiders were responsible for plenty of their own issues, missing multiple opportunities to overcome the refs’ gift to Cincinnati in the second quarter.
And the mistakes started early, with penalties, two sacks on Carr (including a forced fumble) and a strange decision by returner Peyton Barber to pick up the ball on a kickoff as it appeared to roll toward the end zone for a potential touchback.
Saving the Raiders from complete despair was their league-worst red-zone defense, which came up with a pair of stops that forced the Bengals to settle for field goals.
After Cincinnati’s controversial touchdown in the second quarter, Carr led the Raiders to one of their own, scrambling 20 yards for a first down, finding tight end Darren Waller for another first, then hitting receiver Zay Jones for a 14-yard touchdown up the middle. The score kept the game to a one-touchdown affair.
The Bengals failed to score a second-half touchdown, but the Raiders’ final three trips in their red zone ended with only field goals and that game-sealing interception.
Carr attempted 54 passes, completing 29 of them for 310 yards and a 69.2 rating. He also took three sacks.
“You talk about the red zone and all that, everything is just frustrating right now,” Carr said. “I didn’t expect it to go this way. I didn’t feel like it was going to go this way all during the game at any point, all the way up until the last couple seconds. Everything is just pretty frustrating.”
Cincinnati awaits its opponent in the AFC’s divisional round, while the Raiders await a possible rebuild — again. Carr, with one year left on his contract, could be on the move, along with General Manager Mike Mayock and interim coach Rich Bisaccia and many more across the roster.