You knew it was going to come to this, didn't you?
You knew the minute Golden Tate shoved Sam Shields out of the way.
You knew as soon as the ball settled into M.D. Jennings' hands, only to disappear in a web of arms.
You knew the minute that one replacement official signaled for a touchdown while standing next to another who called for a touchback.
And you knew when commissioner Roger Goodell shrugged it off as an example of "the beauty of sports."
At the moment, the NFL's "Fail Mary" is directly impacting the playoff position of three teams in the NFC. There are four long weeks remaining before the postseason is set, but it's reasonable to believe that Tate's disputed touchdown reception -- a play that gave the Seattle Seahawks a 14-12 victory over the Green Bay Packers as time expired -- will weave its way into the 2012 playoff tapestry.
The chart shows how the NFC playoff standings would look if Jennings had been granted the interception, as the replacement referee in that game -- Wayne Elliott -- said later Jennings should have been. The NFL also acknowledged the play should have been overturned by offensive pass interference on Tate, but it drew no conclusions on whether what happened next should have been ruled an interception or a touchdown. (As we discussed at the time, reasonable people can disagree on the "simultaneous possession" aspect of the play.)
At the moment, the difference for the Packers is a first-round bye in the playoffs. For the Seahawks, it's a spot in the playoffs entirely.
Yes, with a loss in that game, the Seahawks would now be 6-6 and would lose in a tiebreaker to the Washington Redskins for the final wild-card spot in the NFC. As it stands now, however, they have the edge on the Redskins because the victory gave them a 7-5 record. The Packers are currently the third seed in the NFC with an 8-4 record, but a 9-3 mark would put them ahead of everyone except the Atlanta Falcons.
Look, I realize nothing in an NFL season is this simple. There are innumerable moments in the course of four months that cause permanent ripple effects. And then there's the Butterfly Effect, which suggests that a Packers victory in that game would have started a new timeline, thus making it impossible to make such a direct connection between an event in September and playoff standings in December.
(Sorry for the brief turn into geekdom. We'll carry on from here...)
There's no sense in hashing through the abomination of replacement officials, other than to say the "Fail Mary" was a unique moment in NFL history and one that came outside the course of reasonably expected variables. Calls from officials, good and bad, impact every game. But in this instance, and really this instance only, the NFL knowingly lowered the chances that the game would be officiated well by hiring unqualified replacements as leverage in a labor dispute.
There is no telling how much impact the decision ultimately will have. The worst-case scenario would leave the Seahawks and Packers tied for the NFC's final wild-card spot. The Seahawks would clinch by virtue of the first tiebreaker, which is head-to-head matchups. If the Packers wind up tied with a team it hasn't played, the next tiebreaker is conference record -- which is one game worse than it would have been had they defeated the Seahawks.
The Packers long ago left behind the disappointment of that game. They had to in order to proceed with their season, and it's worth noting they are in position to minimize its impact. They own the tiebreaker over the Chicago Bears in the NFC North and can cement it with a victory at Soldier Field in two weeks.
But as outside observers, we don't have to fall in line with such thinking. It's important to note the lasting impact of the league's replacement fiasco.
For the next few weeks, I'll post our own "NFC Standings*" for the purpose of tracking the bearing of that game. It's not because I'm a sore loser or that I hate the Seahawks or feel compelled to stick up for the Packers. To me, the league should be held accountable for risking the integrity of its process to win a battle at the negotiating table. Let's see how it plays out.