Welcome to the NFL's referee horror movie   

Updated: September 30, 2009, 2:39 PM ET

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As soon as the Baltimore Ravens converted a big third-down play in defiance of a lingering zero on the play clock late in Saturday's AFC divisional playoff game, it seemed preordained that the officials' mistake would play a major role in the outcome of the game. There was nothing the Tennessee Titans could have done to prevent Joe Flacco from completing the pass that prolonged the drive that eventually decided the game. Seriously, it was out of the Titans' hands.

It probably won't make Jeff Fisher feel any better, but you can't fight fate.

The way it looks now, we should have seen this coming. And the question is, where is it leading?

If you know anything about cheap horror movies, you can venture a pretty good guess. This season has been one long string of clumsy, obvious foreshadowing, with the officials in charge of a most unsubtle script.

John Parry

Paul Jasienski/Getty Images

Everybody run! It's an NFL official!

You could hear the ominous music in the background when Ed Hochuli blew the fumble/incomplete call in the Broncos' win over the Chargers, and it gained volume from there. There was the blown touchdown call at the end of the Chargers-Steelers regular-season game, Santonio Holmes' disputed replay-reversal touchdown in a win over the Ravens and the last-second weirdness in the 49ers-Cardinals Monday night game, when the refs apparently forgot to tell the 49ers' coaches where they were placing the ball after a replay ruled Frank Gore down at the 2-yard line.

(OK, so maybe that one was more a coaching problem with the 49ers, since Mike Martz probably could have -- or should have -- found out where the ball was being placed before calling a dive play on the last play of the game. Still, there's little doubt the officials weren't real crisp on that play.)

At this point, the refs are blowing calls we didn't think could be blown. Seriously, the play clock? Who saw that coming? It doesn't really seem like a judgment call, and the Ravens rolled right through it like it didn't apply to them. Which, for one play, it didn't. But if the refs can go to the review booth and take away a play that supposedly happened after the two-minute warning, why couldn't the play clock be reviewed?

(And by the way, aren't officials in charge of stopping play for the two-minute warning the same way they're in charge of throwing a flag when the play clock expires? They can take away one play but not the other? Look, it's a tough game to officiate, and some of the rules are so unnecessarily complicated that I feel for the guys who have to explain them. But sometimes -- like all season this season -- I think the officiating has gotten significantly worse since the institution of instant replay. It's a mental crutch, with the refs knowing they have backup if they botch one of the correctable calls. On close plays, especially complete/incomplete and fumble/no fumble, it's probably human nature to make a call quickly and definitively, then let the cameras sort it out.)

So what will the officials do for a grand finale? Will the Eagles get five downs at some point Sunday? Are the officials preparing everyone for the NFL's worst fear -- a blown call that decides the Super Bowl? After the Expired Play-Clock Caper, it seems like a fair bet. This isn't just foreshadowing; this is the kind of bad foreshadowing we get in a low-budget slasher movie -- the pretty girl laughs at the nerdy guy when he finally gets up the nerve to ask her to dance. Then, you know, the music gets heavy, the girl runs off with her friends and the nerd plots revenge.

All of these officiating screwups could be independent, merely a quirky run of coincidence. But if this bad script continues with this same ham-handed predictability, at least we'll say we saw it coming.

ESPN The Magazine senior writer Tim Keown co-wrote Josh Hamilton's autobiography, "Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back," which is available on Amazon.com. Sound off to Tim here.


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