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NFL pitted two of the top teams on prime time but the officiating crew didn't match up to the moment

Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett (95) celebrates as he walks off the field after an NFL football game against the Indianapolis Colts, Sunday, Oct. 22, 2023, in Indianapolis. The Browns won 39-38. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

AP Pro Football Writer

Published: November 6, 2023

If the NFL flexed officials like they do enticing matchups for prime time, the crews led by referees Brad Allen and Shawn Smith wouldn't get much work under the bright lights.
Not after their performances in Week 7, when an unsually high number of calls and non-calls across the league drew scrutiny from fans and rules analysts all wondering just what the rules keepers on the field and the watchdogs at NFL headquarters were watching.
Only once this century had there been an NFL game where one team was flagged 10 or more times and the other avoided penalties altogether. That occurred on Dec. 1, 2019, when the Raiders were whistled for a dozen penalties to the Chiefs' zero in a 40-9 loss to Kansas City.
Now, make that two games.
While Miami was flagged 10 times for 70 yards, the Eagles weren't penalized at all in their 31-17 signature win over the Dolphins, although there were a couple of offsetting flags and plenty of other times Philadelphia should have been penalized.
In Indianapolis, the Colts were on the verge of upsetting the Browns when backup cornerback Darrell Baker Jr. was called for a pair of debatable penalties that helped Cleveland stunningly escape with a 39-38 victory.
A Colts takeaway was, well, taken away by the first phantom foul on Baker and he was whistled again for pass interference on the next play even though the throw was uncatchable.
Indy was clinging to a 38-33 lead with 47 seconds remaining and the Browns were facing third-and-4 from the Colts 13 when E.J. Speed strip-sacked P.J. Walker, whose fumble was recovered by defensive lineman DeForest Buckner.
Hold on.
Baker was called for illegal contact on wide receiver Amari Cooper, although it was Cooper who pushed down Baker as he made his way into the end zone and it didn't appear Baker did anything to interfere with his route or to merit the whistle.
The ruling negated the takeaway and gave the ball back to the Browns at the Indy 8 after the 5-yard walkoff.
On first-and-goal on the next snap, Walker threw the ball out of the back of the end zone, well out of wide receiver Donavon Peoples-Jones' reach.
Although the throw was uncatchable without 10-foot stilts, Baker was called for pass interference, giving the Browns four chances from the 1-yard line to score the winning touchdown, which they did on their fourth try with 15 seconds remaining.
That sequence stood as the lowlight of the abundance of debatable calls and non-calls that peppered Sunday's slate of 11 games. That is, until the nightcap when the Dolphins and Eagles squared off in a matchup of 5-1 teams.
From this admittedly early, pre-Halloween viewpoint, it was easy to envision the Dolphins-Eagles game as a prelude to Super Bowl 58 in Las Vegas three months and three weeks hence.
What had shaped up as a sensational showdown, however, devolved into a one-sided game of "flag" football with the Eagles getting away with blatant infractions and the Dolphins getting dinged every time the yellow penalties flags hit the ground.
Among the plays that drew fans' ire was Allen's crew missing an obvious face mask on cornerback James Bradberry.
The worst call came when the officials flagged Miami pass rusher Christian Wilkins with roughing the passer for basically playing two-hand touch on Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts.
While 15 yards were being marked off, former NFL official and current NBC rules analyst Terry McAulay chimed in to say that was a ticky-tacky call and that Wilkins had actually pulled up and certainly didn't deserve a personal foul.
"I say he hits him in one step. He actually pulls off with his hands, he doesn't follow through and blow up the quarterback. This just isn't enough for roughing the passer," McAulay said. "He just puts his hands on him, a little shove, not enough for a foul."
But the consummate call, actually, on a weekend such as this.