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What if NFL officials didn’t call roughing the passer on Ahmad Brooks?

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Sometimes, one play, one moment, one decision can change everything — or maybe only a little bit. Either way, it can be fun to imagine the various timelines if one thing had gone differently. SB Nation NFL is looking at those hypotheticals, alternate universes, and made-up scenarios in our second annual “What If?” week. You can follow along with every story here.

Yesterday, we talked about the awful, awful NFC Championship game. An away game at Century Link combined with an officiating crew that didn’t pass a rule book around before the game led to a heartbreaking loss at the end of the day.

But the bigger ‘what if’ is if the game wasn’t played in Century Link in the first place. And there’s only one play to look at that punched the San Francisco 49ers’ plane tickets for that.

The 2013 season had its share of strangeness, but nothing more strange than when the New Orleans Saints had a hand in one of the worst, whiniest, and most egregious calls in the history of the NFL. And the 49ers got to be the recipients. With 3:17 left, and Drew Brees doing what Drew Brees does—moving the ball down the field, this happened:

What a play, right? Patrick Willis recovers the fumble. The 49ers can chew clock and leave New Orleans as eventual No. 1 seed, hosting a playoff game right?


Turns out that hit is illegal and Ahmad Brooks got slapped with a personal foul. The resulting penalty gifted the Saints 15 yards, allowed them to kick a field goal and tie the game up. The 49ers eventually lost with a second field goal in the final seconds.

That flag changed the entire playoff structure. Had the 49ers won this game, they would have been the No. 1 seed. They would have gotten the first-week bye of the playoffs and the Super Bowl would have gone through Candlestick Park.

The hit itself wouldn’t have been so bothersome if it wasn’t for the fact the Saints poured some salt in our wounds. Brees went on record knowing he was going to get the flag and since he’s not Cam Newton, you can bet he got what he wanted. To be fair, Brooks did re-adjust Brees’s neck, just not exactly the way the officials may have wanted it. Here’s the hit from another angle:

Assuming the Seahawks were the opponent for the NFC Championship game in this scenario, would the 49ers have beaten them? Very possible. The Seahawks beat the 49ers in Seattle and the 49ers were the victors when hosting their NFC West rivals. This is the call that seeded the playoffs and made the Super Bowl run through Seattle.

This also wouldn’t have been so irritating if the exact same play didn’t happen the following week when Saints defensive end Akiem Hicks sacked Matt Ryan the exact same way.

“NFL Officiating: It’s not consistent, because no one has sued us for that yet.”

To be fair, it’s totally understandable how the officials could fling laundry in that situation—better safe than sorry. Reviewing personal fouls has become a reality, finally. Took the NFL long enough.

If this blunder didn’t happen, do the 49ers go to the Super Bowl? Hard to tell. Do they win it? Another hard call. The Seahawks embarrassed the Denver Broncos that year, there’s no telling if the 49ers would have the same level of success. The defenses were neck and neck in rankings, so take that into consideration.