Was it all the refs' fault? No. Turning the ball over and having a field goal blocked sucks. Some of the calls were right. But the ones that really stand out after the game are the ones that changed the game. A phantom defensive holding on a stuffed running play that would have brought up 3rd and 9 with about four minutes left was just the nail in the coffin. Sure, maybe the Browns manage to convert that 3rd down on their own - but did they need the officials' help after benefiting from questionable no-calls (pass interference on a Terrell Owens target in the endzone that may have taken 4 points off the board) and calls gutted the Bengals' chances to come back late in the game.
The part that wasn't the referees' fault was certainly the Bengals' fault. They never really got the running game going, and the offensive line gave up 4 sacks. They failed to recover a Cleveland fumble. When it really mattered, they let Peyton Hillis run for 24 yards and a first down. Allowing Scott Fujita to block a field goal is unacceptable. Coverage was loose and shaky for much of the day. But really, I believe the refs took this game out of the Bengals' hands with the defensive holding call at the end of the game. The Bengals need to clean up pass protection and pre-snap penalties, but the real point swings in the game came down to:
- The blocked field goal and subsequent "unnecessary roughness" call. Borderline call at best. -3 points for Cincinnati (Cincinnati's fault) +3 points for Cleveland* (sort of Cincinnati's fault).
- Uncalled pass interference against Terrell Owens on an incomplete pass in the endzone in the second quarter. Textbook call. Them's the breaks, but likely -4 points, and that's mostly on the zebras.
- Cleveland's first drive in the second half. Totally unacceptable showing by the defense.
- Defensive holding on the last possession of the ballgame. Completely unacceptable call. Maybe Cleveland converts the subsequent 3-and-9-to-go. I doubt it. Game over.