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'They blew the call,' Saints coach Sean Payton says NFL's head of officiating told him about controversial no-call

Rams' Nickell Robey-Coleman hits the Saints' Tommylee Lewis

Rams' Nickell Robey-Coleman hits the Saints' Tommylee Lewis late in the game during the second half of the NFL football NFC Championship Game, Sunday in New Orleans. Credit: AP / Gerald Herbert

NEW ORLEANS — Shortly after Saints coach Sean Payton walked off the field in defeat on Sunday, he was on the telephone with the NFL’s head of officiating.

It probably was the second-most-disappointing call of the day for him.

“It was simple,” he said of his conversation with Al Riveron, based in the league’s Manhattan offices. “They blew the call. They said there should never have not been a call. They said not only was it interference, it was helmet-to-helmet. They couldn’t believe it.”

The play in question occurred late in regulation with the score tied at 20. The Saints were driving for the go-ahead points — Drew Brees had just completed a 42-yard pass to Ted Ginn Jr. to move the ball to the Rams’ 13 — and on third-and-10, Brees tried to hit receiver Tommylee Lewis on a wheel route down the sideline. The pass was incomplete, but Nickell Robey-Coleman plowed into Lewis before the ball arrived for what looked like a blatant pass interference.

But there was no flag.

The Saints couldn’t believe it. And although they wound up kicking a go-ahead field goal, they were robbed of both further attempts at the end zone and a chance to run the clock down before they scored.

“I bounced up looking for a flag and didn’t see one, so I was a little shocked about that,” Lewis said after the Saints’ 26-23 overtime loss. “I couldn’t believe it.”

On the other side of the building, Robey-Coleman said he was just as surprised.

“When I hit him, when I saw where the ball was, I thought it was gonna be a flag,” he said. “A pass interference. I didn’t play the ball, I didn’t look back. I just hit him.”

Robey-Coleman went so far as to admit that he was trying to draw a flag.

“My best chance was just to smash him,” he said. “I saw an open man. I saw his hands go up and I knew I had to get there. I thought I can’t afford to look back because they might put it in there . . . So I was like, worst-case scenario, I get a P.I., they get four more downs and we can still stop them and get a field goal.”

Turned out there was a better-case scenario for the Rams.

“I thought it was a bang-bang- type play,” Rams coach Sean McVay said. “I thought it was a competitive-type play, and certainly I’m not going to complain about the way it was officiated.”

In a postgame pool report, referee Bill Vinovich said it was a “judgment call by the covering official” that was non-reviewable. The league, if Payton’s account of his conversation is to be believed, clearly thought it was poor judgment.

Both McVay and Robey-Coleman said they thought the officials were “letting the players play” throughout the game. That, the defender said, emboldened him to be physical on that critical pass.

“There were some things going on out there and the refs were letting us play,” he said. “It was sparky out there. They were letting us do our thing for the most part . . .  When he saw how physical they were letting us be, that’s when we came in in the fourth quarter and overtime and got extra physical. I was down there, I was getting dirty.”

The Saints will have to spend the offseason sulking over it.

“It’s a game-changing call,” Payton said. “That’s where it’s at.”

Said Brees, “Being that it happened right there in front of the [official] . . . that makes it even more difficult. In that moment, you obviously yell and scream, ‘How did you not see that?’  ”

When Lewis was asked if having the NFL’s head of officiating apparently apologize made him feel better or worse, he chose the latter.

“Of course,” he said. “Because you can’t take it back. There is nothing you can do about it now.”

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