In an ideal world, the names of the officials calling Sunday's NFC and AFC championship games wouldn't matter. But this is sports, and human error comes into play. That applies to the officials carrying whistles in addition to the players and coaches in the arena. If history — recent and otherwise — is any indication, officials will make some headlines of their own this weekend.
Let's take a look at the officiating crews calling this weekend's championship games in Santa Clara and Baltimore and how they've impacted games in the past.
Clete Blakeman brings up bad memories for Lions
Up first, referee Clete Blakeman's crew is calling the NFC championship game between the Detroit Lions and San Francisco 49ers. This fact already has Lions fans irked. And this is the fan base that was burned by the biggest officiating controversy of the regular season.
The Lions and Blakeman have history. Blakeman oversaw the crew in an infamous 2019 game against the rival Packers that had multiple controversial calls trigger a rally for a Green Bay win.
Detroit led that Monday night game 22-13 in the fourth quarter. With Green Bay driving, the Lions sacked Aaron Rodgers to set up fourth-and-21 and an obvious punt situation. But umpire Jeff Rice flagged Trey Flowers for an illegal hands to the face penalty that gave the Packers a first down. Green Bay went on to score a touchdown on the drive and cut its deficit to 22-20.
Replay shows that Flowers had a hold of David Bakhtiari's shoulder pad on the play, not his neck or facemask as is required for the penalty. His hand did slip up to touch the base of Bakhtiari's helmet at the last moment.
What “hands to the face” looks like
From a punt to a TD, all because of the refs. Just disgusting. pic.twitter.com/K2ho1fBFEy
— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) October 15, 2019
On the ensuing Lions drive, officials missed an obvious pass interference penalty that would've set the Lions up in scoring position.
— Rick Sosa (@sosarick) October 15, 2019
The Lions didn't score again, and the Packers went on to kick a game-winning field goal as time expired. On that field-goal drive, Flowers was again flagged for an illegal hands to the face penalty when an infraction clearly didn't occur. The NFL office acknowledged the next day that the second flag should not have been thrown. Lions players and fans were understandably furious.
Rice, who threw both flags, is no longer on Blakeman's crew. But Lions fans are well aware of Blakeman's name and will be ready to pounce at the first sign of questionable officiating in San Francisco's favor on Sunday.
Blakeman has spent 16 seasons as an NFL official, including 14 as a referee. Sunday will mark the 14th playoff game he has officiated. He refereed Super Bowl 50 between the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers.
Shawn Smith has nullified many home-field advantages, Baltimore awaits
On Sunday, the Baltimore Ravens will host the first AFC championship game since the team came to Maryland. But they might not enjoy the kind of home-field advantage they were expecting.
Yes, there will be a very loud M&T Bank Stadium crowd that correlated to the NFL's highest number of delay of game and false-start penalties this season, but they've also drawn Shawn Smith's crew to call the game, and that has traditionally been very bad for the home team.
The numbers, as broken down by Sharp Football Analysis, are striking. Home teams have a 55.9% win rate over the past three years. With Smith as the referee, they have a 40.8% win rate. The numbers against the spread take a similar dip, going from 50.1% to 37%. Also, home teams in non-Smith games receive 4.6% fewer penalties and 34.8% more in Smith games.
Add all of that up, and Smith ranks No. 1 in road team win percentage among 24 referees since he reached the rank in 2018.
Those are certainly numbers that conspiracy theorists will enjoy, given that the Ravens are the only team standing between the NFL having Patrick Mahomes and, perhaps more significantly, Taylor Swift in Las Vegas for the Super Bowl.
All of that said, it's important to note that just because a referee has been historically good for road teams doesn't mean he's going out of his way to benefit road teams. There have been 24 refs between 2018 and now; one of them has to be No. 1 in road win percentage, just like one has to be the top in home win percentage, most penalties, fewest penalties and every other officiating statistic. That doesn't automatically mean someone is a compromised ref.
Also, with a 17-game regular season, we're dealing with small enough samples that the data could be skewed by the randomness of games and refereeing. A simulation by Timo Riske of Pro Football Focus bore that out.
Meanwhile, the Chiefs have their own unpleasant history with Smith, as he was the referee of their Week 11 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, which saw each team rack up seven penalties. Smith has called one Ravens game as well, their Week 15 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.