Scouting NFL playoff officials: What to know about divisional-round refs
Officiating assignments for the divisional round are important on a number of levels. The members of these crews handle the critical games that determine the championship round, of course. And, generally speaking, they also constitute the pool from which the NFL will staff the Super Bowl.
Yes, one of the four referees working this weekend is expected to be assigned to Super Bowl LII. The group includes two veterans and two of the league's newest referees. They will all work with scrambled crews of "all-star" officials, but because a referee sets the tone for any crew, it's worth recalling their regular-season tendencies. The numbers include declined and offsetting fouls.
Note: All data is culled from either research by ESPN Stats & Information or Pro Football Reference. Historical references begin in 1999.
No. 6 Atlanta Falcons at No. 1 Philadelphia Eagles
Saturday: 4:35 p.m. ET, NBC | Game HQ
Referee: Bill Vinovich | Falcons' record in his games: 7-3 | Eagles' record in his games: 2-6
Vinovich is annually one of the least flag-happy NFL referees, and 2017 was no different. In fact, as the chart shows, he averaged the lowest number of penalties per game (11.6) -- a full three flags fewer than the next-lowest referee. His regular-season crew threw just three flags in one game this season, five in another, six in two others and more than 17 only once.
The Falcons saw Vinovich in their Week 17 victory over the Panthers, in which his crew threw 13 flags. As it turns out, Vinovich was also the referee for the Eagles' most recent playoff game, a 26-24 loss to the Saints in the 2013 wild-card round.
His 2017 crew ranked near the bottom of the individual frequency charts, most notably in the category handled solely by the referee: roughing the passer (two).
No. 5 Tennessee Titans at No. 1 New England Patriots
Saturday: 8:15p.m. ET, CBS | Game HQ
Referee: Ron Torbert | Titans' record in his games: 2-1 | Patriots' record in his games: 3-0
Torbert's regular-season crew averaged the NFL's third-most penalties per game, but, with any luck, his activity will be moderate this weekend, given the teams on the field. The Patriots and Titans ranked third and fourth in the NFL, respectively, in fewest penalties this season.
The Titans probably don't have fond memories of their most recent game with Torbert, when his crew failed to enforce the "Holy Roller" rule late in the first half in the Titans' 40-17 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 11. The mistake put the Steelers in position for a 50-yard field goal attempt just before halftime.
Patriots fans will be reassured to know that Torbert's crew called only six offensive pass interference fouls, tied for fourth fewest in the NFL. The Patriots were called for eight OPI fouls in the regular season, tied for most in the league, including three by tight end Rob Gronkowski.
No. 3 Jacksonville Jaguars at No. 2 Pittsburgh Steelers
Sunday: 1:05 p.m. ET, CBS | Game HQ
Referee: Brad Allen | Jaguars' record in his games: 1-1 | Steelers' record in his games: 2-1
Like Torbert, Allen is in his fourth season as an NFL referee. His crew ranked well below the NFL average in penalty frequency for three of those years, including 2017. Nevertheless, it threw a league-high combined 51 flags during the regular season for either defensive pass interference, defensive holding or illegal contact. The gap was especially pronounced for defensive holding; Allen's crew called 30 while the other 16 crews averaged 18.0.
Hopefully, that tendency won't carry into the playoffs. The Jaguars were called for an NFL-low nine combined penalties for defensive pass interference, defensive holding or illegal contact. The Steelers were called for the second lowest with 12. The average for the rest of the NFL was 21.3.
No. 4 New Orleans Saints at No. 2 Minnesota Vikings
Sunday: 4:40 p.m. ET, FOX | Game HQ
Referee: Gene Steratore | Saints' record in his games: 6-7 | Vikings' record in his games: 5-5
This will be Steratore's second Saints-Vikings game in the past five months. He also worked the teams' Week 1 matchup at U.S. Bank Stadium, throwing 15 flags in the Vikings' 29-19 victory.
He produced one of the season's strangest moments in Week 15, using a notecard to help measure a first down on a key fourth down in the Dallas Cowboys' 20-17 victory over the Oakland Raiders. Afterward, NFL senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron reminded referees that foreign objects should not be part of the process. Steratore's crew threw at least 20 flags in four games during the season and overall was tied with Torbert as the league's second-most active crew (17.1 per game).