It took several minutes and a lengthy explanation from referee Ed Hochuli to clarify the ruling on the field following a second-quarter punt by Zoltan Mesko that came close to grazing the shin of 49ers returner Ted Ginn Jr.
Initially, Hochuli announced a holding penalty on the kicking team, assessed to number 57. The Patriots don't have a number 57, and Hochuli later clarified to note that the penalty was actually on the receiving team, but also that the kicking team had illegally touched the football. He announced that the down would be replayed because of the penalty.
Before that could happen, however, Bill Belichick challenged the ruling on the field that Ginn had not touched the football. If Ginn had touched the football, the ball would have been live to recover, and the Patriots would have taken over in San Francisco territory as defensive back Marquice Cole fell on the football.
The play was upheld as called, although Hochuli determined that the holding penalty on San Francisco would be assessed from the spot that the ball was downed, not that the down would be replayed.
The entire situation was confusing, and was compounded by technical problems with Hochuli's microphone that made it difficult to hear his explanation following the review.
Belichick was adamant after the game that he felt Hochuli provided a sufficient explanation of the call to him on the sideline. Belichick expanded on the play on Monday when asked about the mention of an illegal touching penalty by Hochuli (many in the press box were confused as to where Hochuli's determination of an illegal touch came from, as Cole seemed to make a routine play by falling on the football to down the punt).
Here's what Belichick had to offer on the play:
"There was no penalty for illegal touching. The penalty was for holding on the return. There [was] no illegal touching penalty. Once we touch the ball, then that's the worst field position that they could be in on that play, assuming that it didn't touch the returner. Though even though it bounced back even further than that when we finally recovered it, assuming that it didn't touch the returner, then the ball was spotted where we initially touched it. It wasn't illegal touching. It's not like we ran out of bounds and were the first to touch the ball. That would've been an illegal touching if that happened. We touched the ball, and once we touched it, it hadn't been touched by the return team, then that's the worst field position that San Francisco could have gotten the ball in until you mark off the penalty. Now once you add the penalty at the end, then it would go from that spot."