Game's third team upstaged Steelers, Hawks

Updated: February 8, 2006, 9:50 AM ET
By Michael Smith | ESPN.com

DETROIT -- Three weeks ago, after the Steelers held on to upset Indianapolis, Joey Porter was unhappy about the overturning of Troy Polamalu's fourth-quarter interception that could have sealed the win much earlier. Believing that deep down the league preferred Peyton Manning and the Colts to win, Porter publicly criticized the game officials, asking them not to "take the game from us."

Well, the Steelers can call it even now, as the officials who performed well enough throughout the season to earn the privilege of working Super Bowl XL performed Sunday as though they were trying to make it up to the Steelers by giving them the game -- not just any game, but the biggest game. And, yes, this time the other guys, the Seahawks, cried conspiracy, only not quite as loudly as Porter.

"You know, that's what happens when the world is against you," one Seahawk said after the 21-10 loss at Ford/Heinz Field. "No one wanted us to win. They wanted Jerome Bettis to win and go out a hero, and they got it."

Seattle had its share of goats: in particular, tight end Jerramy Stevens, who dropped four balls, and kicker Josh Brown, who missed two field-goal attempts. Almost to a man, the Seahawks pointed the blame finger at themselves for converting only one of three red zone attempts (when they had been the best in the league in that area, scoring a touchdown on 71.7 percent of their trips inside the 20-yard line); for allowing Ben Roethlisberger to improvise and complete a 37-yard pass to game MVP Hines Ward to the 1; for giving up a 75-yard touchdown run to Willie Parker; and for getting beaten by a trick play on Antwaan Randle El's pass to fellow receiver Ward for a touchdown, a first in Super Bowl history. If you read between the lines, though, they pretty much spelled out in bold letters that they had plenty of help in handing Pittsburgh its fifth Lombardi Trophy.

Namely, the boys in black and white.

"Those things are out of our control," Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said of the three major penalties that helped change the game completely. Not saying the outcome of the game would have been any different, but for sure it would have been a different game. "That's the way [the officials] called them," Hasselbeck continued. "The Steelers played well enough to win tonight, and we didn't. They should get credit. It's disappointing, it's hard, but what are you going to do?"

Here's what referee Bill Leavy's crew did, point blank: It robbed Seattle. The Seahawks could have played better, sure. They could have done more to overcome the poor officiating. We understand that those things happen and all, but even with all the points Seattle left on the field, there's a good chance the Seahawks would have scored more than the Steelers if the officials had let the players play.

In the biggest game of the year, the biggest game in sports, even, the officials were just a little too visible. In that regard, the Super Bowl provided a fitting conclusion to a postseason packed with pitiful performances by the game's third team. There were incorrect down-by-contact rulings in both NFC wild-card games; a touchdown that could have gone either way and should have gone the other way -- in favor of Tampa Bay -- in the Bucs' loss to the Redskins; the Patriots got no love in Denver in being hit with a bogus pass interference penalty and not catching a break on Champ Bailey's fumble at the goal line that looked as though it could have been a touchback; and, of course, the Polamalu play.

Still, what happened to the Seahawks wasn't the same as, say, New England going into Denver and playing badly (five turnovers) on top of the bad calls. Seattle gained almost 400 yards and turned it over just once.

You see, you can spend weeks -- and we did; two, in fact -- analyzing and dissecting matchups and giving each team the edge in certain areas and trying to figure out how the game is going to play out, but the two things you can't account for are turnovers and officials. The latter were the X-factor Sunday. Edge: Steelers.

It actually was a fairly clean game from a penalty standpoint, without a whole lot of yellow on the field -- 10 accepted penalties between the teams. Seven were against the Seahawks, though, a team that tied with Indianapolis for the second-fewest penalties (94) in the regular season. But those calls against the Seahawks stuck out like the Space Needle on the Seattle skyline.

Consider: The Seahawks lost 161 yards to penalties when you combine the penalty yards (70) and the plays the flags wiped out (91). By halftime alone, when it trailed 7-3, Seattle had had 73 hard-earned yards and a touchdown eliminated.

Hasselbeck hit Darrell Jackson with an apparent 16-yard scoring pass in the first quarter, but the play came back when Jackson was called for offensive pass interference. It was a touch foul. Jackson extended his arm, yes, but both players were fighting for position, and he didn't create any separation by doing so. It was like a referee calling a hand-check in a key moment of Game 7 of the NBA Finals.

The Seahawks had to settle for three instead of seven.

Still, that was early, and that one didn't change the game as much as did a holding call against Sean Locklear early in the fourth quarter with Pittsburgh leading 14-10. That one wiped out an 18-yard catch by Stevens that would have taken the ball to the 1. Locklear supposedly held Clark Haggans, so instead of first-and-goal at the 1 and the chance to complete a 98-yard touchdown drive and take a three-point lead, Seattle faced first-and-20 at the 29.

Three plays later, Ike Taylor picked off a Hasselbeck pass, and Hasselbeck went low to make the tackle on Taylor's return and was called for a 15-yard personal foul for a low block. The Steelers set up shop at their 44. That one right there made no sense.

Pittsburgh likes to run its trick plays in the middle of the field. Boom! Four plays later, from Seattle's 43, Randle El took a reverse and threw a sweet strike on the run to Ward. It was 21-10, and that was all she wrote. Everyone knows how important it is to play Pittsburgh with a lead or with the score tied. The Steelers don't lose when they're up by 11.

Eleven just so happens to be the total points taken away by bogus calls. Some penalties meant points; others meant field position. A holding call in the second quarter negated Peter Warrick's 34-yard punt return that would have started Seattle in Pittsburgh territory.

By contrast, the Steelers might have gotten a break on Roethlisberger's 1-yard touchdown plunge on third-and-goal in the second quarter. Leavy reviewed the play under the booth's orders, since it occurred inside the two-minute mark, and while still photos of an airborne Roethlisberger showed that the ball might have broken the plane of the goal line, he landed short of it and reached the ball over. It was close. Head linesman Mark Hittner didn't seem so sure of it, hesitating before signaling touchdown.

"I don't think he scored," Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren said.

It was that kind of evening for the Seahawks, who represent a town where residents know all too well that when it rains, it pours. If having what seemed like 90 percent of the 68,200 in attendance waving Terrible Towels wasn't enough to make Seattle feel as though it was playing on the road, the officials called it as though the Seahawks actually were.

Pittsburgh capitalized on its opportunities. And guys like Bill Cowher, Ward, Dan Rooney and The Bus are all very deserving of a championship -- and it's nice to see them win one -- but it would have been better had it not happened like this. It's like the Seahawks said: Not taking anything away from the Steelers, but keep it real.

"We had a touchdown taken away from us, the first one we scored," said Hasselbeck, who was measured in his words but clear in his frustration, "and then we had the ball at the 1-yard line, they called a penalty on us. That was unfortunate."

"I thought they were offside [on the play Locklear was called for holding]," center Robbie Tobeck said. "I thought we had a free play on because they had two guys come across. You know, that's the game. In a game, there's situations you have to overcome, and all night long we didn't do a good job of overcoming those things, and that's something we've done all year."

In the offseason, 31 teams will be back at the drawing board, evaluating what they need to do to knock off the Steelers in the fall. After the postseason they just had, Mike Pereira and the NFL's crew of officials would be wise to take a long, hard look at themselves. It's a real shame when, on the game's biggest stage, the major players aren't players at all. We saw too much of the third team in Super Bowl XL and not enough Seahawks and Steelers.

Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Michael Smith

NFL Senior Writer
Michael Smith joined ESPN in July 2004 as a National Football League senior writer for ESPN.com, covering league news and major events such as the NFL Draft, NFL Playoffs and the Super Bowl, and continues to write breaking news stories. He is also a correspondent for E:60, ESPN's first multi-themed prime-time newsmagazine program, which debuted October 2007.

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