In 5 more days from now, the New Orleans Saints — after what seems like the longest week and a half of the franchise's 51-year history — will finally get the chance to face off with their hated rivals the Atlanta Falcons, in the most highly anticipated "rematch" in recent NFL history.
But before the (10-4) Saints face off for NFC South Division Championship and NFC Playoff seeding implications against the (9-5) Falcons in this Sunday's second meeting of the season between the two teams at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, there's a "million-dollar question" on the minds of Who Dat fans everywhere, which is:
Can the Saints expect to get a "fair shake" from NFL referees officiating the game this time around?
The Saints can clinch a spot in the Playoffs by winning at least 1 of their 2 remaining games against either the Falcons this coming Sunday or at Tampa Bay the following week on New Year's Eve. They can win the NFC South Division Championship if they win both.
But for now, the only thing on the mind of the Saints players (and Saints fans) is getting redemption and maybe a little bit of "payback" for the way that things went down in the very controversial 20-17 loss to the Falcons at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Thursday Night Football back on December 7th.
However, the obvious question that will hang over the build-up this week to Sunday's highly-anticipated rematch will no doubt be focused on NFL officials who will be assigned to officiate the game, in light of the events that took place during the first meeting at Atlanta in which there were several curious calls made as well as a handful of "non-calls" or calls that WEREN'T made.
Here at Saints News Network, we even explored the possibility (albeit it far-fetched in the view of some) of a League "conspiracy" against the Saints franchise (click HERE to read), in light of not only just the curious calls (and non-calls) from the game itself but also from the revelation a day later that a former Falcons player been one of the referees officiating the game on head referee Clete Blakeman's crew.
Though it was never proven that there were any reasons to suspect something "underhanded" occurred, it was revealed that that one of the officials that had been on Blakeman's crew was none other than former Falcons player Phil McKinnley — who played offensive tackle for Atlanta from 1976 through 1980 and was himself a part of the storied Saints-Falcons rivalry after he was originally drafted by the Falcons in the 9th Round of the 1976 NFL Draft.
Pro Football Talk / NBC Sports NFL analyst and writer Mike Florio pointed out that the NFL may have attempted to hide it — since a different referee was listed as the down judge in the official game book.
The official game book appearing at NFL.com shows that Hugo Cruz, not McKinnely, served as the down judge for the game. Which obviously was NOT the case.
An NFL referee who just coincidentally used to PLAY for the team whose game he wasn't supposed to be officiating, is concerning to say the very least and it certainly was not a "good look" for the NFL.
To be fair, McKinnely has officiated 4 other games involving the Saints, and New Orleans had a 3-1 record in those games. But to officiate a game for his former team against a team that was their hated arch-rivals?
That's clearly a QUESTIONABLE move for the League to have allowed in this case.
But the bigger question was did McKinnely's presence ALTER the outcome of the game itself? There is no evidence to suggest that.
Nevertheless. it is interesting to point out that during that Saints loss to the Falcons, the team was penalized 11 times for 87 yards, which gave Atlanta NINE (9) automatic 1st Downs as a result.
For perspective, since 1999 the most 1st downs by penalty in an NFL game was 10; meaning that the Saints were either guilty of making a lot of mistakes or were possibly being scrutinized for their on-field play much more so than their opponent was — whether it was unintentional on the part of Blakeman and his officiating crew or not.
One call — a roughing the passer call on 2nd year Saints DT Sheldon Rankins — seemed to be completely unwarranted; and the call at the end of the first half where Saints offensive guard Josh LeRibeus was flagged for an illegal formation penalty that negated a made 47-yard field goal by kicker Wil Lutz, appeared to be "ticky tacky" at best.
Such calls normally draw a verbal warning, and not a flag as it was in this case. It ultimately cost New Orleans 3 more points, which it could be surmised ended up being the 3 points that they eventually lost by.
And then of course, there were the massive amount of injuries suffered by the team in the loss at Atlanta.
Rookie running back Alvin Kamara (concussion), linebacker A.J. Klein (groin), guard Senio Kelemete (concussion), defensive lineman David Onyemata (undisclosed), rookie defensive end Trey Hendrickson (ankle) and safety Kenny Vaccaro (groin) not finish the game because of injuries.
Tight end Josh Hill, running back Mark Ingram, wide receiver Michael Thomas and wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. also missed some time after being checked out the medical staff.
And while injuries are certainly a part of the game, it appeared that at least 2 of them — the helmet-to-helmet hit by Falcons linebacker Deion Jones on Kamara and the blatant poke in the eye on Thomas by Falcons CB Desmond Trufant — were totally missed or simply not called.
And yet DESPITE all of that, the Saints STILL had a chance to win the game at the end.
But QB Drew Brees threw what essentially was a game-losing interception to Falcons linebacker Deion Jones in the end zone with less than 2 minutes remaining when the Saints were hoping to score a game-tying field goal or a go-ahead touchdown.
The next day that Friday after reviewing the film from the game, Saints head coach Sean Payton told reporters that he found himself frustrated with the calls made by Blakeman's crew the night before.
"I thought our guys fought hard," Payton said. "Obviously, looking back through it, I thought the officiating was extremely poor, inconsistent would be a good way to put it, and I thought that had a lot to do with the way this game ended."
Payton, who has actually held back from criticizing NFL referees over specific calls at different points of this season, had problems with several calls which included the obvious ones that were mentioned and described up above.
Ironically, Payton himself was was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct on the Saints final drive — for telling a referee while he was asking for a timeout that he'd already called one, except in more colorful and EXPLICIT language (which likely included an "F-word") — and the NFL fined him $10,000 as a result.
Payton was also not pleased about the NFL's process for reviewing calls, which requires teams to submit them for review.
"We just call in, it's wasted energy," Payton said. "It's something that has come up with other teams earlier in the year, even with some of the replay, there's just a confidence level that has to be improved."
Payton declined to go through each specific call but addressed a few other issues and made it a point to note that wide receiver Michael Thomas was held (blatantly in some instances) several times.
"You can look at everything from the roughing the passer call, or the lack thereof," Payton said. "I know what that rule's in place for, what's in place for what happened with Sheldon the other day? Keep going, defensive holding, pick up a play. I'm not going to sit and go through every call, it's frustrating when you have a game that isn't being decided on the field like it's supposed to, you have a crew make so many mistakes in one event."
Naturally, that leads to the question of can the Saints expect anything different this Sunday?
Will the League do everything in its power to ENSURE that this Sunday's game is officiated as fairly as possible, and that the crew assigned to the game will call everything "right down the middle"?
NFL officiating crews are typically chosen for a game at least a week in advance, though the League hasn't revealed yet (it could be known as early as today) which crew will be officiating this Sunday's upcoming contest.
But you had better believe the League will likely try to keep the rhetoric toned down a bit, surrounding the idea or even the very notion of any alleged impropriety or under-handed intent on their part; or on the officiating crew tasked with calling this game.
Meanwhile, as Sunday's game inches ever so closer to the 12 p.m. Central kickoff inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, the prevalent thought will likely remain among the players themselves as well as fans that the Saints were "victimized" a week and a half ago, and they damn sure don't want to see it happen again.
Can the Saints get a "fair shake" this Sunday from the NFL referees calling the most important game of their entire 2017 season?
If the NFL hopes to avoid a repeat of the public relations nightmare that's severely damaged their image and reputation in the past week and a half, one would certainly have to imagine that will be the case......