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Jerry Sullivan: The call was right, the rule is dumb

Column as I see 'em, Week 16:

When the call was made, I could hear the cries from all the Patriot-haters. There they go, getting lucky and having everything fall their way. It has to be some kind of grand conspiracy, maybe Putin and the Russians fixing things for the NFL's evil empire.

I can understand. When tight end Jesse James caught the football and lunged over the goal-line, it looked like a sure touchdown and a Steelers lead. Everyone thought so. The officials ruled it a TD. Up in the press box, where we were finishing up our accounts of the Bills' big win, the writers agreed it looked like a good catch.

"This is gonna stand,” Tony Romo said on the CBS broadcast as the play was reviewed.

“There is no doubt, it is going to hold up,” Jim Nantz concurred.

But that assumed we knew what constituted a catch in the NFL. After a lengthy review, referee Tony Corrente made his announcement to a hushed crowd at Heinz Field. The replay showed that James had lost control after touching the ball over the line. Another Jesse James robbery!

“The receiver in the end zone did not survive the ground,” Corrente said. “It’s an incomplete pass.”

Two plays later, the Pats picked off an ill-advised Ben Roethlisberger pass in the end zone and survived, 27-24. So instead of moving to 12-2 and clinching home field over the Pats in the playoffs, the Steelers are tied with the Pats and behind on a tiebreaker.

It's tough, but it was the right call under the NFL's convoluted rule, which says "A player who goes to the ground in the process of attempting to secure possession of a loose ball (with or without contact by an opponent) must maintain control of the ball until after his initial contact with the ground, whether in the field of play or the end zone."

That was the judgment that overturned a Dez Bryant catch in the Cowboys' loss to the Packers in the 2015 playoffs, and which dates back to a reception by the Lions' Calvin Johnson being waved off in the opening week of the 2010 season.

“I’m not going to cry over spilled milk,” said Steelers coach Mike Tomlin.

But it's OK to question the rule, and whether the league can somehow modify it to allow catches like the one by James to stand. Imagine if that play had occurred with 30 seconds left in a Super Bowl. As it was, the call could determine who gets to this year's big game by giving the Pats the home-field edge instead of the Steelers.

There's no perfect answer to the catch question, but the NFL can do better. If the human eye sees a clear catch, it should be a catch. At the very least, they could change the rule to allow receivers to reach over the goal-line and score without "surviving the ground," which is the case with runners, who simply have to break the plane with the ball.

Some veteran media assumed James had scored for that reason, forgetting that receivers are treated differently. A receiver isn't considered a runner until he completes the catch to the ground. Why not tweak the rule to say it's a catch as soon as the receiver controls the ball and gets two feet down, as James did before lunging at the goal-line?

James caught the ball. Anyone could see that. Under a revised rule, he would have been considered a runner at that point and been able to reach over the goal-line. It's one thing if a receiver is bobbling the ball on his way to the ground. But the officials should have the latitude to rule that a catch has been made before he hits the ground.

If the ball comes out later, then it's a fumble. What's wrong with that? Fumbles create radical changes of possession. And if there were more legal catches, there would be more offense, more passing yards, more scoring, which is good for the game.

The current rule exists to make things easier for the officials. That's no reason for a bad rule. It creates long, needless reviews, too many overturned catches, and outrage by fans who long for the old days, when a catch was a catch. Fix it before it's too late.

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The price to move up for a potential franchise quarterback in the NFL draft is steep. The Bills would have to give up at least two first-round picks to get into the top 10 in the coming draft. But San Francisco appears to have found its franchise QB for a bargain.

Early last month, the Niners traded a second-round pick to the Patriots for Jimmy Garoppolo, who had backed up Tom Brady for three-plus seasons. He has been a revelation. The Niners, who were 1-11 when Garoppolo became the starter, have won three in a row and put up passing numbers worthy of the legend up in New England.

In three games, Garoppolo has completed 68 percent of his passes for 1,008 yards, or 336 a game. In Sunday's 25-23 win over the Titans, he completed 31 of 43 for 381 yards. Marquise Goodwin, the former Bill, has been one of the best wideouts in the league since Garoppolo became the starter, catching 24 passes for 319 yards in three games.

The offense is thriving under first-year head coach Kyle Shanahan, who finally has a passer who can make his system go and create on his own. The San Francisco offense has accumulated more than 400 yards in consecutive games for the first time since 2011.

Garoppolo will be a free agent after the season; the Niners want to sign him to a long-term deal. They could slap the franchise tag on him, but it would be wise to lock him up before he puts together an even gaudier resume. In five career starts, he's 5-0 and averaging 300 passing yards a game.

The Bills, who still need to find the long-term answer at QB, can only look on with envy as another team finds its franchise guy.

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Speaking of franchise quarterbacks, it looks as if Blake Bortles has reasserted himself as the answer in Jacksonville. Bortles regressed a year ago and was seen a detriment to his team, has been sensational in the Jags' run to their first playoff spot since 2007.

During the Jags' current three-game winning streak, Bortles, the third overall pick of the 2014 draft, has completed 71.4 percent of his passes for 903 yards, with seven TDs and no interceptions. Jacksonville is averaging 35 points in those three victories.

Jadeveon Clowney, the Texans star defensive lineman, called Bortles "trash" after the Jags crushed Houston, 45-7. Well, Bortles is playing the best football of his career. The Bills could get a shot at him -- and their former coach, Doug Marrone -- if the current playoff positions hold and the Jags host Buffalo in a wild-card game.

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Is He Owned? In your fantasy final and need a sleeper? How about the guy who leads all qualified NFL receivers in yards per catch and is still unowned in most leagues? That would be Jags rookie wideout Keelan Cole, who has emerged as Bortles' favorite target over the last three weeks.

Cole, who was undrafted out of Kentucky Wesleyan, had 186 yards on seven catches in the win over the Texans. Cole has a touchdown in three straight games and a reception of 70-plus yards in his last two.

He was seen as a deep sleeper in August after catching a 97-yard TD against the Pats in a preseason game. Cole played sparingly until midseason, then began to get more regular targets. His big chance came Sunday when Marqise Lee, the Jags' top receiver, was sidelined by an ankle injury. Lee is likely out this week, so Cole would be a nice get.

Hey, I'm in my final and weak at receiver. I might just act on my own tip here.

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Stats Incredible: If it seems the NFC is having its way against the AFC in crossovers, you're right. The NFC went 4-0 last week, after going 4-1 the week before. The NFC is 36-22 on the year against the AFC. So it wasn't surprising to see the Titans lose at Arizona and San Francisco in consecutive weeks ... This might temper your optimism about next Sunday's game in Foxborough: The Pats haven't lost a regular-season home game to a division opponent when Tom Brady plays a full game since a loss to the Jets in 2006 ... The Panthers' Julius Peppers got a half-sack on his former teammate, Aaron Rodgers, becoming the fourth player ever with 10 sacks in at least 10 seasons. Bruce Smith did it a record 13 times. Reggie White had 12 seasons with 10 sacks and Kevin Greene 10.

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