BALTIMORE -- Before we get to the crux of the problem, let's dispense with some important facts.
No. 1: The New England Patriots DID NOT lose to the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday because of the atrocious officiating during the prime-time horror show, which hereafter will officially be dubbed Flag Day.
No. 2: The penalty called on Devin McCourty with 52 seconds left in the game that gave Baltimore a first-and-goal from New England's 7-yard line and effectively sealed an opportunity for the Ravens to win on a short field goal was exactly the right call. McCourty did illegally impede receiver Jacoby Jones as he streaked down the sideline.
"It was interference," confirmed McCourty in hushed tones after his team's numbing 31-30 loss. "I've got to make that play."
No. 3: No matter how badly the replacement officials performed, the Patriots need to show more restraint than their coach, Bill Belichick, who angrily pursued and yanked the arm of line judge Esteban Garza as he ran off the field.
They must exhibit more poise than their young linebacker Brandon Spikes, who, in the aftermath of the loss, tweeted: "Can someone please tell these f------ zebras foot locker called and they're needed Back at work !!!!"
OK. I've dispensed with all of my disclaimers. The New England Patriots are 1-2 this morning because their defense gave up 503 total yards and enabled Joe Flacco to morph into Dan Marino after a horrendous start that left the Ravens trailing 13-0.
Having said all that, it's impossible not to be fixated on the replacement officials. It's like watching a grisly 20-car pile-up. It's so hideous and unseemly you find yourself unable to divert your gaze from the wreckage.
C'mon now, Roger Goodell. Time to stop the madness.
Enough. Enough, enough, enough. Every week we think it can't get any worse, and every single week it does. Your replacement officials have left your game in tatters. They have destroyed the spirit, the intensity and the rhythm of the game.
They are an embarrassment, and they need to go.
Not after next weekend, not at the end of the month, not after Halloween. They have lost all credibility with the fans, the coaches, the players and the media.
You have taken your pro football league, the undisputed crown jewel of American sports, and you have sullied it so thoroughly that your players are wondering aloud how they can continue.
It's like taking a shiny Maserati and dropping it into a vat of hazardous waste. The refs are poisoning your product.
"It's frustrating," nose tackle Vince Wilfork admitted. "We're an aggressive defense. It takes away from our aggressiveness at times. The things we try to do, now we're hesitant to do this and do that.
"But what are you going to do? You've got to play within the rules."
Belichick, still seething in his postgame news conference, was asked why he chased down Garza when the game ended.
"I'm not going to comment about that," he answered. "You saw the game. What did we have, 30 penalties called in that game?"
Actually, there were 24 penalties in all, and
even though the Ravens earned the W, you could have easily made the case they were more adversely affected by the referees. New England was whistled for 10 penalties for 83 yards, while Baltimore was tagged with 14 penalties for a whopping 135 yards.
"If they had lost this game," Patriots receiver Deion Branch noted, "they'd be hollering like crazy."
Oh, don't worry. They were. Future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis was particularly bothered by a call late in the third quarter on safety Ed Reed, who leveled Branch on a play in the middle of the field with a bone-crunching hit. Had no flag been thrown, it would have been fourth down and New England would have punted. Instead, the Patriots were awarded a first down at the Baltimore 18-yard line. That possession led to a field goal and a 30-21 New England lead.
"You can't do that to the game," Lewis said. "You have to let the game take care of itself. One of the biggest plays of the game, you give them three points.
"There was no helmet-to-helmet. [Reed] turned his head to the side and clearly hit him with his shoulder pad."
The hit undoubtedly will be reviewed by the league office. Maybe fines will be forthcoming, maybe not. The problem is even when the call is correct, it no longer holds any weight, because nobody -- nobody -- believes the replacement officials have earned the authority to make it.
"I'm not saying the old refs are perfect," Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb said, "but it sure would be nice to see them right now."
What irked players most in each locker room was the inconsitency of the flags. On certain plays significant contact was allowed, while on others, penalties were called for minimal contact. Asked if he could discern what constituted a penalty and what didn't, Wilfork replied, "I know what the rules are, but it's not up to me. I'm not throwing the flag."
When Webb was asked if he knew what was legal, he confessed, "No, I really don't."
Are you listening, Mr. Goodell? Your players don't even know the rules of their game anymore.
The NFL is fortunate that no one has been seriously injured because of this. You have dodged a hail of bullets with these replacement refs, but sooner or later your luck is going to run out.
Here were the lasting images of Sunday night's game: Webb throwing his helmet in disgust, Wilfork screaming at an official in the end zone after Justin Tucker's winning kick, Belichick chasing down a referee who was savvy enough to do his best Forrest Gump and keep on running.
"I think what we've got to do going forward is take it out of the refs' hands," Branch mused. "That's going to be our mantra from here on out. That's always been true, but tonight it was proven to us. We can't leave [the outcome of the game] in their hands anymore."
Branch knows how it works. We all do. We can trash the replacement refs and the players can vent their frustrations, but as long as the paying public stays tuned, there's no real urgency. The ratings are still good. The money is still coming in.
But at what price?
Without the integrity of the game, what do you have? A bunch of big, strong, angry men who have reached their breaking point.
Bring the refs back now, before one of those big, strong angry men boils over, before they make you rue the day you ever let it come to this.