With Super Bowl LVII tied 35-35 with just 1:54 remaining, the Kansas City Chiefs faced a critical third down in Philadelphia Eagles territory to keep their drive continuing and run out some clock before attempting a game-winning field goal.
Chiefs quarterback – and newly anointed NFL MVP – Patrick Mahomes waited and threw a pass towards the endzone in the direction of JuJu Smith-Schuster, only for it to fall to the Arizona turf.
Just when it looked like the drive was ending and Kansas City would have to kick a field goal which would allow the Eagles the opportunity to have one final drive with about 90 seconds left – plenty of time for Jalen Hurts and Co. – a yellow flag fluttered onto the field from an official signaling a penalty.
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The officials adjudged that Eagles cornerback James Bradberry had held Smith-Schuster, giving the Chiefs an automatic first down and allowing them to run the clock down to 11 seconds before kicking the go-ahead field goal – essentially wrapping up the victory.
In the immediate aftermath, the penalty call was questioned by the TV announcers.
“On this stage, I think you let them play, finish this thing out,” Fox broadcaster Greg Olsen, a former star tight end, said. “I don’t love that call.”
And on social media, it was queried by many, as people maligned it as effectively deciding the outcome of the NFL’s biggest game.
“Sorry but I don’t like that call! Not for the Super Bowl man!” NBA legend LeBron James said on Twitter.
In a separate tweet, James said: “His hand on his back had no effect on his route! This game was too damn good for that call to dictate the outcome at the end. Damn! By the way I have no horse in the race. Just my professional opinion.”
ESPN analyst Mina Kimes said it was “such a crappy way to decide a Super Bowl.”
Former Dallas Cowboys star wide receiver Dez Bryant said that “that wasn’t a holding call.. under 5yds as well… that call for sure dictate the outcome of the game…”
NFL commentator Kirk Herbstreit said he hated the call at that stage of the game.
“Usually don’t get involved in ripping referees but HATE that defensive holding call on Bradberry. 35-35 late on a 3rd down incompletion on what was a marginal foul???” he wrote on Twitter.
“Let em play man!! Bad call-hate that is what many will take away from this game.”
But from the players involved in the play and Sunday’s officials, they were unequivocal afterwards that there was holding on the play.
“It was a holding,” Bradberry told reporters after the Eagles’ 38-35 loss. “I tugged his jersey. I was hoping they would let it slide.”
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Smith-Schuster – who finished with seven catches and 53 receiving yards at the Super Bowl – said there was “100%” holding on the play.
“My route’s to strike in, strike back out. I mean Bradberry’s a good player, but you know I feel like, at some day, the call’s gonna be called,” he told reporters.
Referee Carl Cheffers told pool reporter Lindsay Jones afterwards that there was “no debate” whether or not there was a penalty.
“The receiver went to the inside, and he was attempting to release to the outside,” Cheffers said. “The defender grabbed the jersey with his right hand and restricted him from releasing to the outside. So, therefore, we called defensive holding.”
Whatever the merits of the call itself, for Eagles center Jason Kelce, it was clear that it wasn’t the sole thing to blame for Philadelphia’s loss.
“They called it, and that’s the way this goes. I’ve said this before, I’m never going to be somebody who puts blame or anything on officials. That’s a hard job. They make a call. It is what it is,” he told reporters after the game.
“There were multiple other moments in that game to take care of business and I think that, you know, we were close. We could have won that game without the officials making… without that call being the determining factor.”
Still, despite the clarity from the people involved in the play, chatter on social media and beyond will debate whether or not the Super Bowl was decided on one call.