CINCINNATI -- The play that arguably (although temporarily) turned the momentum of last Saturday's wild-card round playoff game to the Cincinnati Bengals' favor came with a ruling that went against the team.
For a few moments, the play galvanized the Bengals. It prompted some to march across the field to challenge the Pittsburgh Steelers after one of their own was literally knocked out by a vicious hit that caused him to lose the football. It appeared to be just the switch that needed to be flipped before the Bengals embarked upon a 15-point comeback that ultimately was dashed in the game's final seconds.
Still, the more immediate result of the play was a hit that went unpenalized but led to Bengals running back Giovani Bernard receiving a concussion.
On Friday, the league's top officiating boss sided with his referees on the play, outlining in an NFL-produced video reasons why he believes they got the call right.
We'll get to vice president of officiating Dean Blandino's comments below, but first, let's recap the play in question.
With 1:43 remaining in the third quarter, Bernard was coming out of the flat, looking for a pass from quarterback AJ McCarron. At the same time Bernard was raising his hands to catch the football, Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier closed on him quickly, clearly sensing an opportunity to lower a hard hit that might dislodge the football a split second after Bernard caught it.
In virtually the same instant that Bernard caught the ball and turned to run upfield, Shazier dropped him with a tackle that forced a fumble and also sent Bernard to the turf face down, where he momentarily lied motionless.
As officials reviewed the play to determine if it was in fact a fumble, Shazier celebrated, upsetting Bengals running back Jeremy Hill.
"It really wasn't the hit," Hill said after the game. "I was just more upset with seeing [Bernard] on the ground that they were still trying to celebrate. That just rubbed me the wrong way. I have Gio's back. I know Ryan, Ryan's a good friend of mine. I was just disappointed in Ryan. That's all I told him. I said, 'Ryan, I don't understand that. That's not football.'"
According to Blandino, Shazier's hit was clean football. Why? Because Bernard established himself as a runner and was no longer a defenseless receiver; and because the players were running toward each other at different angles, meaning the way Shazier led with his head wasn't an issue.
Both points certainly can be debated.
"If he has established himself as a runner -- control, both feet, ability to ward off, attempt to avoid contact, that time element -- if that time element has been met, then he can be contacted in the head," Blandino said. "You watch the play. [There's] control, he's going to take several steps, he's going to turn and become a runner. So he's not a defenseless player at the time of contact."
As to the point about leading with the crown of his helmet, Shazier would have been at risk for earning a penalty had he and Bernard been traveling at the same angle, Blandino said. He added that Bernard's momentum was angled toward the sideline, while Shazier was moving directly north/south.
"The theory being, when players are moving at [the same] angles, they don't have as much opportunity to avoid that contact," Blandino said.
Did the league get the ruling of a clean hit and fumble right? Despite the league's explanation, it still seems debatable.