The fix might be in. A selection of questionable officiating decisions helped New England avoid an upset loss to Jacksonville in the AFC championship game, and conspiracy theorists seized on the latest example of an evidently continuing trend. The Patriots have ridden a wave of refereeing luck all season, from overturned touchdowns for the Jets, Steelers, and Bills in the regular season to an odd, pivotal reversal of a penalty ruling against the Titans in the divisional round to the multiple controversies in the Jaguars game. “Somebody in Boston got the refs on the payroll,” Bills defensive end Jerry Hughes complained to reporters last month, and fans in 44 states agree.
The league itself has indirectly indulged the theories, too, with the official NFL Research Twitter account posting a curious statistic about the Patriots’ uncommonly low penalty total after their conference championship win. That nugget has been retweeted more than 16,000 times, which is roughly seven times as much as that account’s second-most-shared tweet.
The Patriots were called for 1 penalty against the Jaguars— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) January 21, 2018
It is the fewest penalties called on one team in a playoff game since the 2011 AFC Championship... when the Patriots were called for 1 penalty in a win over the Ravens
Here’s another curious statistic of a similar nature: The Patriots were penalized just 10 yards against the Jaguars. That is the smallest cumulative punishment against one team in a playoff game since the 2016 AFC championship … when the Patriots were penalized just 10 yards in a win over the Steelers.
Thus far in the playoffs, the Pats have lost 47 yards on five penalties, while their two opponents have lost a combined 160 yards on 16 flags. And four of the five accepted penalties against New England have come on punts or kickoffs, meaning the Patriots have lost ground on down and distance just once all month.
Of course, it’s preposterous to think that the NFL rigs its officiating to benefit the Patriots. The league crusaded against the Patriots’ organization and suspended its best player because of a kerfuffle over the ideal gas law. It’s not also engineering a systematic, diabolical effort to aid that very team in what would amount to the most brazen favoritism of a prestige franchise since the 2002 Western Conference finals.
Referees err; it happens. And instead of the result of a conspiracy, the Pats’ officiating luck represents a multibillion-dollar manifestation of Hanlon’s razor: Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.
Rather than a conspiracy being under foot, it is more likely that Bill Belichick, who both coaches and constructs New England’s roster, prizes discipline among his charges and works to limit his team’s penalty count. The Pats have been one of the least-penalized teams in the league since he arrived in Foxborough, and as Kevin Clark noted for The Ringer last week, “Belichick associates believe secretive Patriots aid Ernie Adams helps study the tendencies of referees and figure out what officiating crews are more likely to call certain penalties. … Maybe they are just smarter than everyone else. We have plenty of evidence to suggest they usually are.”
But not everyone approaches sports—and the Patriots in particular—so rationally, and it’s harder to dispel conspiratorial notions when some facts actually support their claims. For the anti-Patriots masses who believe New England receives favorable treatment, the following pieces of evidence are compelling. Nobody show them to my boss.
1. On aggregate, the Patriots have benefited from a disproportionate number of penalty rulings in recent postseasons.
To judge a team’s ref-induced gains, it’s simplest to focus on penalties, both because they’re more plentiful than challenges and because their beneficiary is more obvious. (If anything, an overturned call in New England’s favor might refute the notion of a leaguewide pro-Pats directive because it means that a close call was initially ruled against the Patriots.) And to avoid any complicating factors like individual ref differences or divergent game conditions, it’s simplest to compare the number of penalties and penalty yards a team collects to the number of penalties and penalty yards its opponent collects—“penalty ratio” and “penalty yard ratio,” respectively.
Since 2011—when they started their streak of seven consecutive conference championship berths—the Patriots rank fourth among playoff teams in both penalty ratio and penalty yard ratio. Over the same span, they also rank fifth in both stats in the regular season, and they’ve improved their ratio in the playoffs—meaning the calls have been skewed more when the games matter more—by a substantial margin.
Patriots’ Penalty Differential, 2011–17
|New England Penalties vs. Opponents'
|New England Penalty Yards vs. Opponents'
This sample isn’t especially small, either, as the Patriots have played 17 playoff games since 2011. That total yields more data than a team accumulates in a full regular season, and throughout league history, only about one team per year has gained such a disparate penalty yardage advantage as the Patriots have in recent postseasons.
2. When they’ve come, the Patriots’ penalties have been less harmful than their opponents’.
This chart splits every penalty in a Patriots playoff game since the 2011 season by yardage, as listed in the NFL Penalty Tracker database.
Penalties by Severity, 2011–17 Playoffs
|0 – 5
|6 – 14
While the Patriots have committed fewer minor infractions—which include the likes of false starts and delays of game, and which could result mainly from more discipline at the line of scrimmage—the greatest imbalance has emerged via the most punishing penalties. New England’s opponents have amassed twice as many of the most severe flags, and conspiracy theorists need only point to last week’s A.J. Bouye pass interference—which gained the Pats 32 yards on a vital end-of-half drive— as Exhibit A of this phenomenon.
This coverage was so dominant that they basically threw a pity flag for Cooks. Crushed off the field pic.twitter.com/SC3PbW3hco— Sam Monson (@PFF_Sam) January 21, 2018
3. A home-field penalty advantage seems to be disappearing across the league, but not in Foxborough.
One potential counter to the theory that penalty calls have been skewed specifically in New England’s favor is that the Patriots, who have earned a bye in each of the seven seasons in question, have played most of their playoff games at home in this stretch. Research has shown that home-field advantage across sports stems largely from an officiating bias for the host team, so it follows that a team playing so many of its playoff games at home would exhibit such superiority.
Indeed, since 2011, the Pats have hosted 12 playoff games, during which they have been penalized 24 percent less, for 34 percent less yards, than their opponents. In other words, for every 2 yards the Patriots lose on penalties in Foxborough, they gain 3 yards back on the road team’s infractions.
But the broader evidence suggests that the theorized home-field penalty advantage actually doesn’t exist across the league. From 2011 through last week’s games, home teams in the playoffs other than the Patriots amassed 303 penalties. Their opponents in those games also amassed exactly 303 penalties. The home teams tallied 46 penalty yards per game; the road teams tallied 45. That pattern of equality holds even when the sample extends back to 2001, when Tom Brady took over as New England’s starting quarterback: In the past 17 seasons, home playoff teams other than New England have averaged the same number of penalties and penalty yards as their visitor opponents.
So New England, again, edges toward an extreme. Among 18 teams that have hosted multiple playoff games since 2011, only Minnesota (just two home games) and Atlanta (four) have gained a greater home-field penalty advantage than New England, and in a far smaller sample of games.
4. The Patriots gain a similar advantage away from home.
Here’s another counter to the general home-field caveat: The Patriots’ penalty advantage is just as robust outside Foxborough. New England has played in five non-home playoff games since 2011—three in neutral Super Bowl sites and two on the road. Remember that at home, the Pats have been penalized 24 percent less, for 34 percent less yards than their opponents. Well, in the five playoff games not in Foxborough, they have been penalized 26 percent less than their opponents, for 36 percent less yards.
Some of that disparity is opponent-specific; one of those games, for instance, was against the Seahawks, who have the worst regular-season penalty ratio over the past seven seasons by a sizable margin. Seattle lost about twice as many yards to penalties (70 to 36) as New England in Super Bowl XLIX.
And five contests is a legitimately small sample, so New England’s penalty luck in this handful of games is likely primed to regress, perhaps as soon as this weekend’s neutral-site Super Bowl matchup against Philadelphia. But the consistency of the Pats’ pattern in the playoffs across venues is also reason to think that home-field advantage isn’t that pattern’s driving force.
5. The Patriots’ advantage manifests predominantly in close games.
Here’s the most suspicious data point. It involves splitting all contests—regular and postseason—from 2011 through the 2017 conference championships into two categories: close games and others. For these purposes, a close game is defined as one with a final margin of eight points or fewer, or a margin after the third quarter of eight points or fewer—in other words, a game in which the fourth quarter either ended or began as a one-possession contest.
In 55 non-close games in the sample, the Patriots amassed slightly more penalties than their opponents. In 74 close games, though, they benefited from a massive disparity.
Patriots’ Penalty Differential, 2011–17
|New England vs. Opponents
|NFL Rank in the Split
|New England vs. Opponents
|NFL Rank in the Split
|Penalties in Other Games
|Penalty Yards in Other Games
|Penalties in Close Games
|Penalty Yards in Close Games
Other than New England, teams across the league fared about as well in close games as non-close games. The Cardinals, Colts, and Giants (ranked second, third, and fourth, respectively, by “penalties in close games” ratio) rank in the top five by “penalties in other games” ratio. And the same consistency holds from the other direction: The Jets, who place next to the Patriots in both penalty and penalty yard ratio in non-close games, rank in the bottom half of the league in both ratios in close games. New England is an exception, and the Patriots, coincidentally, have the best record of any team in close games in the past seven years.
None of this evidence, of course, represents proof of a league conspiracy. (Even though Roger Goodell and Belichick are reportedly “good friends” now. Hmmm.) But if the Super Bowl brings another controversial pass interference call in New England’s favor, or perhaps a convenient missed hold on a big Brady play in a close game, conspiracists will have data to buttress their claims. Which will surely dull their pain as they witness another Belichick-Brady coronation at midfield.