Erroneous whistle embarrassing for NFL, but inconsequential in Bengals' playoff win over Raiders

Cincinnati Bengals' Tyler Boyd (83) and Joe Mixon (28) react to a touchdown by Boyd in front of Las Vegas Raiders' Roderic Teamer (33) during the first half of an NFL wild-card playoff football game, Saturday, Jan. 15, 2022, in Cincinnati.
Safid Deen
USA TODAY Sports+

CINCINNATI — Did one whistle, whether intentional or inadvertent, make a difference in the NFL’s first playoff game this postseason?

The NFL says no, although the series of events in the second quarter of Saturday’s game — which ended in a 26-19 victory for the Cincinnati Bengals over the Las Vegas Raiders — was an embarrassing moment in primetime for the league.

Late in the second quarter, Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow rolled out of the pocket toward the right sideline and threw a 10-yard touchdown pass to receiver Tyler Boyd in the back of the end zone.

An official blew a whistle.

Burrow was not out of bounds before his throw, but it’s conceivable the side judge thought he was. And once a whistle was blown, the play should have been dead — per Rule 15, Section 4 of Non-Reviewable Plays in the NFL handbook.

The NFL said referees determined the whistle was blown after Boyd caught the pass in the end zone.

However, a replay showed the whistle was blown slightly before Boyd secured the catch — but certainly after Burrow threw the pass.

At the end of the day, the whistle was inconsequential.

Burrow was not out of bounds. Boyd was not out of bounds. And the whistle did not affect the Raiders’ defense. Burrow and Boyd simply connected on a difficult play that wins playoff games.

“That’s what you expect from the No. 1 pick in the draft," Taylor said of Burrow's throw, "plays like that, you can’t explain.” “It’s making a play when there’s no play to be made.

"Joe Burrow’s the kind of guy who can make those type of plays. It’s pretty impressive.”

The score gave the Bengals a 20-6 lead with 1:51 left in the first half. Raiders quarterback Derek Carr answered with a touchdown pass before halftime.

Both sides struggled in the second half, but saw their game end with Carr throwing an interception in the final seconds. The Raiders were down by seven and trying to force overtime.

The Bengals, elated after their victory ended a playoff-win drought lasting 31 years (11,332 days), could only laugh off the pivotal sequence.

“I definitely, definitely never heard a whistle,” Taylor said with a coy smile across his face. “No way.”

Burrow, trying to contain a smile himself, said: “No, I didn’t hear any whistle.”

Raiders interim coach Rich Bisaccia, who impressively led this team after Jon Gruden’s forced resignation and Henry Ruggs III’s DUI manslaughter case, said he did not confer with officials regarding the play.

“I think that's a good crew,” Bisaccia said. “I think there's a lot of things that went on in the game both ways. ... I got enough problems with my job, I can't do the officiating, too.”

And the league, regarding the referees:

“They determined that they had a whistle, but that the whistle for them on the field was blown after the receiver caught the ball,” NFL senior vice president of officiating Walt Anderson said in a pool report. “They did not feel that the whistle was blown before the receiver caught the ball.”

The whistle sequence was far from a shining moment for the league in the first playoff game this year.

The NFL has made significant strides, overhauling replay protocols and adjusting rules, with hopes to produce a better product for all involved.

Still, there’s a human element very much prevalent, natural and quirky that can strike at any time. But the NFL cannot afford for referees to be the story or leave sour impressions during games.

The stakes are too high.

The sequences are too consequential.

And when these moments are grand enough, broadcast nationally in a prime spotlight then spread virally on social media, the NFL finds itself in a peculiar situation where players, coaches and fans lose faith in accountability and fairness.

We don’t know how the game would have unfolded if the referees upheld the rulebook following the errant whistle and voided the Bengals’ touchdown.

We don’t know if the Bengals would have settled for a field goal or scored a touchdown on the next play. Or if the Raiders’ touchdown on the ensuing drive could’ve given Las Vegas a tie at halftime. And every single sequence that could’ve followed.  

The Bengals should consider themselves lucky the NFL covered its tracks. They settled for too many field goals against the NFL’s worst red-zone defense.

The Raiders allowed 81.4% of red-zone possessions this season to end in a touchdown. The Bengals only turned 40% of their red-zone trips into touchdowns Saturday.

They should consider themselves lucky the Raiders were just as bad in the red zone, also setting for four field goals outside of Carr’s touchdown before the half.

Instead, the Bengals feel confident.

On this day, where Bengals receiver Ja’Marr Chase was the best player on the field and Burrow threw touchdowns to Boyd and tight end C.J. Uzomah, the Bengals showed they have the potential to make a deep postseason run.

The monkey of the postseason-win drought is finally off Cincinnati’s back.

“I’m happy for the city,” Taylor said. I think the city can finally exhale.”

As for Burrow and many of his Bengals teammates, the weight of that 31-year drought does not feel as heavy when many of them are younger than 30.

Their first playoff win sets the tone for a postseason run they hope to not only show their potential — but reach it.

The Bengals’ next opponent will be determined after Sunday’s slate of playoff games.

“It’s exciting," Burrow said. "It’s exciting for the city and the state, but we’re going to be looking forward to who we’re going to play next week.” “This isn’t like the icing on top of the cake or anything.

"This is the cake.”