Challenging Calls: The NFL's Handling of Illegal Hits

By Bryan Knowles

Late in the Saints victory over the 49ers, New Orleans was driving in an attempt to score a game-tying field goal. They were just over midfield when Ahmad Brooks came off the corner and obliterated Drew Brees, knocking the ball loose for a 49ers recovery.

Or so it seemed.

Brooks was flagged for this hit, with the refs saying he came in high and hit Brees in the head. At game speed, it definitely looked like an illegal hit, but in super slow-motion replay, it's a bit more questionable – it seems that Brooks got the chest on the initial hit, with his bicep ending up contacting the neck or head as he brought Brees to the ground.

The league, expectedly, called the play the absolutely correct call. Brooks didn't have time to get lower, and I'm not sure how many options he had on the hit, considering how little time he had between shaking the right tackle and reaching Brees, but the flag was correct under the rule. San Francisco fans can't blame the refs for this loss – at least, not entirely. Tony Corrente's crew had a rough day, but that particular call was by the book.

The win helps set up an exciting race to the finish between the Saints and Panthers, the two teams left standing in the NFC South. On a day when their offense was unable to significantly pierce San Francisco's defense, they hung in there just enough for embattled kicker     Garrett Hartley to kick first the tying and then the game winning field goals.

Challenging Calls: The NFL's Handling of Illegal Hits
Nov 17, 2013; New Orleans, LA, USA; San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks (55) clotheslines New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) behind the line of scrimmage during the fourth quarter at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks (55) was called for unnecessary roughness penalty. The New Orleans Saints defeated the San Francisco 49ers 23-20. Photo courtesy by John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports.

As for the 49ers, the chances of catching the Seahawks in the NFC West have just turned to slim and none, with slim having left town – the odds of them catching the Seahawks are placed at less than five percent. The Lions loss keeps them alive, with control of their own destiny for the sixth seed, but losses to both Carolina and New Orleans puts them in a tiebreaker bind. It's become clear that San Francisco is not one of the upper crust of the NFL, at least not at this moment.

The injuries to the passing game, coupled with Colin Kaepernick's lack of improvement and Greg Roman's questionable playcalling, seem to have the 49ers a tier or two down from the true tops.

Other observations from week 11 in the NFL:

  • While they never were quite as good as their 9-0 record indicated, give full credit to Kansas City for giving Denver all they could handle, and then some. Their undefeated record had been put up slightly against a softer schedule; when they headed to Denver, they were always going to be the underdogs. There was enough there, however, to put the outcome of their rematch in two weeks in Kansas City in doubt. Don't write them off for the division and top seed quite yet – for the first time in months, the Chiefs looked like a top team, rather than squeaking out a victory against lower competition. This race isn't over yet.

  • Another team losing their luster as a real Super Bowl contender would be Detroit.During the first half of their game against Pittsburgh, both Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson were on pace to shatter single-game records for yardage. Then, the weather stepped up, as did the Steeler defense. Stafford's second half performance was almost entirely a zero – he was 3-of-16, helping lead the Lions to zero second half points.

    Every single Lions point came in a burstin the second quarter, but if they want to be a real competitor against the likes of Seattle and New Orleans, they will have to keep a high level of production for all four quarters. They maintain their lead in the NFC North, thanks to their wins over Chicago, but that lead is tenuous, at best. Letting the Steelers drive for two late touchdowns to win has to be concerning up in Detroit.

  • With three of their five starting offensive linemen out, be it due to the Incongnito-Martin bullying scandal or injury, and playing against a team fighting for their playoff life, you could be excused for writing off the Dolphins this week. Give them credit, then, for gutting their way to a 20-16 victory over San Diego."We're fighting through this," tackle Tyson Clabo said after the game. "Someone's got to get that last wild-card spot. Why not us?" Why not indeed? The Dolphins and Jets are the only two teams to control their own fate for the sixth seed in the AFC; Week 17's matchup in Miami might be the determining factor.

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