The Super Bowl LVII pairing is on the line during the NFL's championship Sunday.
With two matchups of elite teams, every play could decide which team advances. Everything counts -- every call, every non-call, every decision, every replay and every yard.
To that end, let's review the major decisions -- and non-decisions -- made by referees John Hussey (NFC) and Ron Torbert (AFC). We'll take a look at the circumstances and the rules involved, and we'll provide some analysis as well.
Bengals frustrated by Chiefs' second chance via clock error
What happened: A failed third-down play by the Chiefs didn't count because of a clock error.
How it was resolved: As it turned out, a member of referee Ron Torbert's crew tried to stop the play before it started after noticing that the game clock was running. It should not have been, because on the previous play, the Chiefs had thrown an incomplete pass. The attempt to stop the play wasn't seen or heard on the broadcast, nor did players and coaches appear to notice it. But once any official rules a play dead, it's dead.
On the second attempt, the Chiefs were awarded a first down because of a defensive holding penalty against the Bengals.
Analysis: This was absolutely confusing in real time but makes sense in retrospect. Real-time communication is key in these situations, and Torbert's audio was not clear at the time. Eventually, CBS showed a replay of the official trying to stop the play and rules analyst Gene Steratore provided further context and explanation. This was the right outcome, even as it was understandably frustrating to the Bengals
What happened on Chiefs coach Andy Reid's final challenge?
Bengals-Chiefs AFC Championship Game, 6:07 remaining in the third quarter
What happened: Chiefs receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling caught a pass from quarterback Patrick Mahomes on third-and-7 from the Bengals' 26-yard line. Stopped by the Bengals' defense at the 20-yard line, Valdes-Scantling briefly stuck the ball out toward the line to gain, but referee Torbert's crew spotted the ball 1 yard short of the first down.
How it was resolved: Rather than go for it on fourth-and-1, Chiefs coach Andy Reid used his second and final challenge. After a review, Torbert announced that Valdes-Scantling had in fact reached the line to gain and awarded the Chiefs a first down.
Analysis: This was an unusual play because Valdes-Scantling extended the ball, then brought it back in before the whistle, presumably to avoid a turnover. CBS didn't show many replays on the broadcast, but the NFL's command center in New York City has instant access to all of them.
Generally speaking, ball carriers will be given the furthest reach point on a spot (or a review of one) as long as they are being pushed back or held back by a defense. That was the case here. Valdes-Scantling's reach was considered his furthest point of forward progress, and the command center determined that it was enough for a first down.
Did Brett Kern's punt hit the SkyCam wire?
49ers-Eagles NFC Championship Game, 15 seconds remaining in the first quarter
What happened: Eagles punter Brett Kern hit an uncharacteristically short punt, a 34-yarder from the Eagles' 26-yard line to the 49ers' 40. Kern and others on the Eagles' sideline immediately began signaling that the ball hit the wire that holds Fox's SkyCam in place over the field.
How it was resolved: According to NFL rules, if the ball hits a foreign object on the field -- including a wire or a scoreboard -- the down is replayed from the original line of scrimmage and the game clock is restored. In this case, the Eagles would have gotten a chance to get off a better punt.
The in-stadium replay official can initiate a challenge in such an instance, without a coach needing to throw his red flag. But Hussey announced that it could not be confirmed that the ball hit the wire.
Analysis: Reversing any eligible on-field decision requires clear and obvious evidence. In this case, that would mean a view that showed the ball hitting the wire. If one existed, we didn't see it on the broadcast.
Some suggested on social media that the NFL should check to see whether the SkyCam video feed was shaking as a result of the ball hitting the wire. But it would have been difficult to consider that clear and obvious, given the possibility of another explanation -- such as wind -- for a shaky video feed.
Should replay officials have reviewed DeVonta Smith's catch on fourth-and-3?
49ers-Eagles NFC Championship Game, 10:28 remaining in the first quarter
What happened: Eagles receiver DeVonta Smith was credited with a leaping 29-yard catch along the left sideline on fourth-and-3 to the 49ers' 6-yard line, extending their opening possession of the game. Smith jumped up quickly after the play, apparently signaling the Eagles to hurry to the line of scrimmage for the next play.
How it was resolved: The Eagles were ready to run the next play quickly and got the snap off 28 seconds after the previous snap. That made the play irreversible even if replays later showed evidence of a drop.
Analysis: Fox showed a replay several minutes later that clearly showed the ball hitting the ground before Smith had fully secured it via the NFL's catch rule. 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan never challenged it, likely because his coaches and advisers in the booth didn't see the definitive replay in time. But there was another way the call could have been rectified.
The NFL instituted a new rule at the start of the 2021 season, alternately known as the "replay assist" or "expedited review" rule, that allows either an on-site replay official or a member of the league office in New York to make a quick reversal when there is immediate, clear and obvious evidence that one is necessary. To make the process more efficient, the NFL imported Hawk-Eye replay technology that pulls in all replays instantaneously rather than waiting for the broadcast network to put them on air.
The process has been met with rave reviews and has helped in shortening the average length of games over the past two seasons. But for reasons that were not immediately clear, it was not employed in this case.