How perfect it is that the NFL, that technocratic bastion of correctness at any price, including the quality of the product, should be embarrassed by human error in one of the most important games of the year and, just so it would escape no one's notice, a game involving a New York team.
A league that thinks nothing of constantly interrupting the flow of action to review plays on videotape in a futile attempt to ensure that every detail of a game is being officiated correctly ("The Panthers are challenging the spot of the ball") had to apologize after field officials blew the call -- spectacularly -- on the last play of Sunday's 49ers-Giants playoff game. The Giants, who had blown a 24-point second half lead, should have been given another chance to kick what would have been a 41-yard game-winning field goal, but the officials failed to call the proper offsetting penalties.
Rejoice! O, sloppy, fallible humanity! Poetry, danger, freedom and sin triumph over the gleaming sterility of soulless perfection!
That's how I look at it anyway, as a fan of the game who had no rooting interest in the Giants-Niners tilt. Giants fans don't see it that way, of course, and neither do the humorless drones who run the NFL, who were last seen threatening to fine any players who wore high-top shoes as a tribute to Johnny Unitas and who spent their entire childhood, every one of them, coloring inside the lines and carefully stepping around puddles.
Rather than just saying that, yup, the refs blew the call, and they'll get a bad grade on the game but hey, these things happen, NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue -- who word has it has never, not once, wiped his nose on his sleeve -- was so mortified by Sunday's events that he ordered a change in the way officials align themselves on field goals, so that they might better monitor the goings-on.
There's nothing wrong with trying to improve the officiating, but that's a matter for the off-season. It's a strange sport indeed that changes the rules, or the way they're enforced, in the middle of a season. It means that, ever so slightly, the teams playing this weekend are engaging in a different game than the ones who played last weekend.
The NFL has a history of such high-handedness. Thirteen years ago, just before the Cincinnati Bengals and Buffalo Bills were to play in the AFC Championship Game, the league outlawed the no-huddle offense, an exciting tactic the Bengals had been using throughout the regular season and playoffs. (Kids, ask Mom and Dad about the time the Bengals had a good team!) The Bengals had to abandon the no-huddle, though the fates smiled on them and they won anyway. Two years later the legality of the no-huddle had been rehabilitated, and the Bills, whose complaints had led to the ban, went to a no-huddle attack that took them to four Super Bowls.
Still, the rejiggering of the officials on the field during kicks is a minor point that most of us won't even notice. What really needs to change on field goals is the television coverage.
Over the last few years, the TV networks have grown fond of showing us field goals through a camera high above the defensive end zone. From behind the defense, we look through the uprights and down the field toward the line of scrimmage. The idea is that we can see the majestic flight of the ball on this, football's most boring play.
There are three interesting things that can happen on a placekick: a fake, a bungled snap or a blocked kick. None of these are visible from that end zone camera. What we see is a bunch of ants scrambling around about a quarter mile away. Fox actually did a good job of showing that botched snap in San Francisco, employing a camera in the other end zone, behind the kicking team, with a fairly close shot of the play. Had the Giants gotten the kick away, the camera would have tilted up and followed it through or wide of the uprights. Whatever happened, we'd have seen it clearly. What a concept!
Maybe New York's loss will be our gain if the networks learn that that's the best way to cover a placekick. Don't hold your breath.
And another thing on that wonderful, crazy finale to that wonderful, crazy game: How could the Fox announcers have not known that the holder on a placekick can't spike the ball, stopping the clock? Only a quarterback under center can do that, not one set up behind the line of scrimmage. I'll be honest: I didn't know that. But Troy Aikman was a quarterback! And not that long ago. And he did play in the shotgun formation, though not as much as most of his contemporaries. Still, did nobody ever tell him, "Hey, you can't spike the ball in the shotgun"?
I still think, incidentally, that even though Matt Allen couldn't have spiked the ball legally, he did have options, since it was only third down. He could have quickly fired the ball at the feet of an eligible receiver for an incomplete pass. That would have taken less than six seconds, and might have been quick enough that ineligible receivers wouldn't have had a chance to get downfield. He might even have had time to take a few steps to get outside the tackles, then quickly throw it away, which would have been legal.
On the other hand, we wouldn't even be talking about this if the officials hadn't blown the call, or if the Giants hadn't collapsed in the first place and let the 49ers back into the game.
Human error! Ain't life grand?
Last week I went 2-2. The two teams I picked to win on Saturday got munched, and a few of you wrote me taunting e-mails. On Sunday I got both games right, thanks to those thrilling comebacks by the Niners and Steelers, and does anyone write to me? Where is the love, people?
Pittsburgh Steelers at Tennessee Titans (4:30 p.m. EST, CBS): The Titans are the hottest team coming into the playoffs, having won 10 of their last 11. They're ripe for a fall if this season's patterns are a guide, but I don't see the Steelers beating them. Tennessee quarterback Steve McNair and running back Eddie George will benefit from the week off to nurse nagging injuries, and one must suspect the Steelers shot their bolt in that comeback against the Browns last week. Titans.
Atlanta Falcons at Philadelphia Eagles (8 p.m., Fox): Ditto the Falcons, who stomped the Packers in Green Bay. Mike Vick won't be able to run around against Philadelphia the way he does against most teams, and the Eagles will have Donovan McNabb back. I don't even know why I'm pointing that out. They'd win without him too. Eagles.
San Francisco 49ers at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1 p.m., Fox): The Bucs' defense is too fast and too good for Jeff Garcia to do what he did against New York in the fourth quarter Sunday. The only hope the 49ers have is if Tampa Bay quarterback Brad Johnson isn't recovered from a back injury that kept him out of the last two regular season games. He says he is. Buccaneers.
New York Jets at Oakland Raiders (4:30 p.m., CBS): This ought to be the best game of the weekend. Two hot quarterbacks, two fine receiving corps, two great offensive lines: This one's gonna be a shootout! Is it my imagination or do these kinds of games always end up 13-9? I thought the Jets' run would end last week. Wow, was I wrong. Maybe I'll be right this week. Raiders.
The weeks ahead
Titans over the Raiders in the AFC Championship Game. Bucs over the Eagles in the NFC -- yeah, in the cold. Tampa Bay wins the Super Bowl.
Of course, I reserve the right to start again after my picks for this weekend all get beat.