NFL officials must make judgment calls on every play. And when they make the wrong calls in playoff games, they often incur the wrath of players whose seasons ended perhaps earlier than they should have.
In the fourth quarter of Monday’s 31-17 AFC wild card playoff loss to the Buffalo Bills, Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver George Pickens threw his helmet in a fit of rage on the sidelines after officials missed a pass interference call that would have extended Pittsburgh’s drive and given them their only remaining chance to save their season.
The incident occurred with less than five minutes remaining in the game.
A 10-second clip posted to the social media platform X on Monday showed Pickens violently throwing his helmet against the bench.
— wow that was crazy (@CowardlyDoggo) January 16, 2024
With the Steelers facing fourth down from inside their own territory and trailing by 14 points, Pickens lined up to the offense’s right side and ran a quick slant route.
Pittsburgh quarterback Mason Rudolph threw the ball on-target to Pickens for what would have been a drive-extending first down.
Bills cornerback Dane Jackson, however, subtly wrapped his right arm around Pickens’ waist to slow the receiver’s progress. The ball fell incomplete. Officials should have called a penalty for pass interference, but they did not.
That missed call prompted Pickens’ sideline outburst.
An account called “Bad Sports Refs” posted a 15-second clip of the play on X. The account had nearly 153,000 followers as of Tuesday afternoon, which suggests no shortage of available and relevant content.
— Bad Sports Refs (@BadSportsRefs) January 16, 2024
After the game, Pickens continued to stew over the missed call — and the officiating in general.
“You’re not gonna win a game when you play the refs and the Buffalo Bills. That’s really what I feel like happened to us today, to be honest,” Pickens told reporters.
On X, Steelers beat writer Nick Farabaugh posted a clip of the receiver’s comments.
George Pickens absolutely blasts the refs for multiple calls tonight.
“You’re not gonna win a game when you play the refs and the Buffalo Bills. That’s really I feel like happened to us today, to be honest” pic.twitter.com/5v17Y6xe95
— Nick Farabaugh (@FarabaughFB) January 16, 2024
But Pickens did not stop there. In fact, he used an interesting choice of words while urging reporters to review game film.
“Just politically, when guys go back and watch the game, watch the refs,” he said during the same post-game interview.
Mike DeFabo, another Steelers beat writer, posted a clip of the second set of comments on X.
George Pickens: “You can’t play the Bills and the refs…
“… just politically, when you guys go back and watch the game, watch the refs.” pic.twitter.com/EGbqe5Oer2
— Mike DeFabo (@MikeDeFabo) January 16, 2024
The word “politically” might raise a few eyebrows, especially if it implied something nefarious.
On the other hand, 22-year-old wide receivers who experience a playoff loss do not always necessarily use careful language in the moments after the game.
Either way, Pickens’ comments have a much broader context even if he meant nothing sinister.
Selected in the second round of the 2022 draft out of the University of Georgia, Pickens made an immediate impact with 52 catches and 4 touchdowns as a rookie.
This season, he increased both totals and added an NFL-best 18.1 yards per reception.
Above all, however, he developed a reputation for eye-popping athleticism and an ability to catch nearly anything thrown in his direction.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that I have been a lifelong Steelers fan. In fact, I have regularly attended the team’s annual summer training camp.
During those practices, Pickens emerged as a fan favorite for repeatedly making spectacular catches.
At the same time, however, the young receiver has generated his share of controversy.
Most recently, for instance, Pickens gave half-hearted effort while making a lame attempt to block for a teammate during a pathetic 30-13 loss to the Indianapolis Colts. When asked about it the following week, he had an even more lame excuse.
The next game, however, Pickens had his best performance as a pro in a 34-11 drubbing of the Cincinnati Bengals. Nearly every catch made for an incredible highlight.
That game propelled the Steelers to a three-game winning streak and a playoff match-up with the Bills.
Over the weekend, however, a massive snowstorm in Buffalo forced postponement of the game from Sunday at 1 p.m. ET to Monday at 4:30 p.m. ET.
That left some Steelers fans enraged, for they liked their team’s chances against the Bills in bad weather.
Then, once the game finally began, Buffalo raced to a 21-0 lead. A blowout appeared imminent.
Pittsburgh fought its way back into the game, however, drawing to within 24-17 on a 4th-quarter touchdown.
Meanwhile, the Bills had lost a number of defensive players to injury. And the Steelers, with all the momentum on their side, had begun to exploit some of their opponent’s weaknesses.
Multiple penalties, however, put Buffalo in scoring position. And another Bills touchdown extended the lead to 31-17.
Then, on the ensuing Pittsburgh drive, the no-call on Pickens occurred.
Buffalo held on for the win, setting up a game next week at home vs. Taylor Swift’s favorite team, the Kansas City Chiefs. That game, of course, promises to be a television ratings bonanza — one the NFL will love.
Thus, Pickens’ sideline outburst did not occur in a vacuum.
Nor was he the only person who questioned the missed call and other related circumstances.
“NFL moved the game when the weather favored the Steelers. No call on clear taunt by Diggs in the 1st. Missed hold on Allen TD run. No call on exceptionally dirty play by McGovern. Terrible personal foul on Allen slide. No call here. Joke,” one Steelers fan posted.
NFL moved the game when the weather favored the Steelers. No call on clear taunt by Diggs in the 1st. Missed hold on Allen TD run. No call on exceptionally dirty play by McGovern. Terrible personal foul on Allen slide. No call here. Joke.
— AC (@KingDaddySpliff) January 16, 2024
Referees, of course, make easy scapegoats. The Steelers, after all, could have simply played better and won the game that way.
Nonetheless, in this case, the sum of all circumstances produced immense frustration.
This article appeared originally on The Western Journal.