So we’re down to eight in the quest to find the winner of the 50th Super Bowl. After a rollercoaster of a weekend in the Wild Card round, the microscope further zooms in on the NFL as we get closer to San Francisco on February 8th. This doesn’t just describe every player in eight teams remaining in the playoffs, but also the referees. This season, the refereeing in the NFL has been universally slammed, but one of the four guys in charge of the divisional games this weekend will, if Goodell sticks with the tradition, be in charge of the big one. Here is a look at what to expect from the crew chiefs for this round of matches:
Chiefs @ Patriots – Craig Wrolstad
One thing is for sure: Wrolstad will not be getting the Super Bowl berth due to his ineligibility. You have to be a referee for three years and have refereed a post-season game. Personally, they’ve gone for the wrong second year referee. I think Brad Allen has consistently been the best crew chief all season and I’m amazed he’s not got a playoff berth yet, although the league could potentially give him a Conference Championship game to reward him for what has been a breakout year. That being said though, for Wrolstad to be one of the highest graded officials in only his second year refereeing in the league takes some doing. From what I have seen of him this season, his officiating crew have largely kept control of most matches, and he’s refereed a few primetime games, not shrinking at all. He called 11 penalties on the Chiefs in their Week 13 victory over the Raiders, whilst has not worked a game involving the defending champions. The Pats led the league in offensive pass interference, but Wrolstad’s crew called just three in the regular season, tied second lowest in the league. For both teams though, they should be wary before the snap. His crew tied third in those this season, throwing a combined 55 false start, encroachment, offside and neutral zone infraction flags. Despite it being his 10th post-season game, it will be interesting to see how Wrostlad controls his first playoff assignment as a crew chief.
Packers @ Cardinals – Clete Blakeman
Blakeman has been a very consistent performer since he became an official in 2008. He has missed the post season only once when eligible, and this will be his sixth post-season assignment. He’s refereed two big divisional rivalries in the playoffs the last couple of years (San Diego at Denver, divisional round 2014 and Ravens at Steelers, wildcard round 2015), and the league has handed him a really nice game. He’s not headed a game when the Packers have played this season, but did referee the Cardinals week 10 victory over the Seahawks, calling nine penalties on them. Blakeman’s crew let the offense get away with holding much of the season, only calling 38 penalties the entire year, the second lowest in the league. Meanwhile, his crew threw 43 combined flags for defensive pass interference, defensive holding and illegal contact, the fourth highest in the NFL. In short, the defences need to be careful on Saturday.
Seahawks @ Panthers – Tony Corrente
Now, this assignment intrigues me. This is probably going to be the game of the weekend, and Corrente has been one of the best officials all year. He refereed the Seahawks last year in the post-season, taking control of the NFC Championship game. This one will be his 15th post season assignment, and has already been to the big game before, refereeing Super Bowl XLI. He’s also one of the most experienced refs, having done the job for 18 years. He has refereed both teams already this season. He called nine penalties on the Panthers in Week 14 when demolished the Falcons 38-0, whilst he was the referee for the Seahawks 13-10 win over the Lions in Week 4. You know, when his crew completely blew an illegal bat call by Kam Chancellor that could have changed the game. Corrente isn’t afraid to let the teams play. His crew didn’t call many holds or delay of games, however they did call a lot of 12 men on the field or ineligible receiver penalties. They like to be precise, it seems. It should be interesting to see how he handles the biggest game of the weekend.
Steelers @ Broncos – Terry McAulay
Terry McAulay has a NFL post-season assignment. In other news, grass is green and the sky is blue. McAulay has been consistently in and amongst the best referees in the last 10 years, and in 18 years as an official, 15 of them as a referee, he has done 2 Wild Card games, 4 Divisional playoffs, 7 Conference Championship games and Super Bowls XXXIX, XLIII and XLVIII. The man is a brilliant official and it would not surprise me to see him toss the coin in Santa Clara in three weeks time. Although he has not refereed any games involving the Steelers or the Broncos this season, his crew’s most scrutinized moment came in Week 15, when did not manage to keep the fighting between Odell Beckham Jr and Josh Norman under control. That being said, his crew did call 25 combined personal fouls, unsportsmanlike conduct, unnecessary roughness and taunting, the fourth most in the NFL. Plus, they threw 11 flags for offensive pass interference, the third most in the league. Patriots fans will be glad he’s not refereeing the first game. There are some real intriguing matchups this weekend and the referees will be a huge part of the matchups as they also bid to make the Super Bowl. With Wrolstad being ineligible it comes down to Blakeman, Corrente and McAulay. McAulay’s Week 15 performance, as well as refereeing the Super Bowl three years ago, means he probably won’t get the gig. For Blakeman, despite his own consistency, his crew has not been good enough this year, meaning unless he has an outstanding game, he will not be refereeing in Santa Clara. So, even though his crew botched the batted ball call in Week 4, I’m going with Corrente to don the white cap in three weeks and head the all-star referee line up. He has been there or there abouts every season since his last Super Bowl assignment, and I think he is due one. Unless of course he screws up majorly this weekend.