NEW YORK -- This should make dejected New York Giants fans feel even worse: The NFL said the refs botched the call on the final play, an unusual admission about an unusual game.
A pass-interference penalty should have been called against the San Francisco 49ers at the end of their wild 39-38 playoff victory, giving New York another chance to kick a game-winning field goal, said Mike Pereira, NFL director of officiating.
The refs ruled correctly that New York had an ineligible receiver downfield. But they did not throw a flag when Rich Seubert was yanked to the ground as he tried to catch a pass near the end zone after the Giants bungled the field-goal attempt.
''How they missed that, I do not know,'' Giants coach Jim Fassel said. ''That is very disappointing.''
The teams would have had to replay the down with an offsetting pass-interference penalty, said Pereira, who reviewed videotape of the play. Seubert was an eligible receiver even though he is usually a guard.
''Although time had expired, a game cannot end with offsetting penalties. Thus, the game would have been extended by one untimed down,'' the league said.
The Giants blew a 24-point lead -- the second biggest in playoff history -- but still had a chance to win with the 41-yard field goal with six seconds left.
New York fumbled the snap and couldn't get the kick off. So holder Matt Allen scrambled and threw a desperation pass to Seubert, who was pulled down by 49ers defensive end Chike Okeafor at about the 4-yard line.
''There was so much commotion at the end that there was nothing I could do about it. I couldn't challenge it. I couldn't do anything,'' Fassel said.
When asked Sunday night about not making the call, referee Ron Winter said: ''There was no pass interference. The receiver was ineligible.'' However, it was unclear if he was referring to Seubert or Tam Hopkins, who lined up as the left guard and was illegally downfield on the pass.
Seubert lined up as an eligible receiver. He told the officiating crew before the game that he would be in that position on field goals.
Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi called the refs' mistake a ''bitter pill to swallow,'' but he said his team shouldn't have been in that position.
''The officials didn't blow a 24-point lead,'' he told ESPN. ''The officials didn't mess up the field goal in the first place.''
It was a cluttered ending to an exhausting game, but the 49ers didn't apologize Monday for their victory. After all, they're still convinced that Ahmed Plummer intercepted a pass by Kerry Collins two plays before the botched field goal.
When Pereira called 49ers coach Steve Mariucci to explain the league's statement, Mariucci simply said: ''Bummer.''
Actually, Mariucci thought Okeafor would be called for pass interference, but when he wasn't, the coach joined his team in the celebration.
''That's the way it goes,'' Mariucci said. ''What do you want me to say? Just like coaching and playing, in officiating, there's never going to be a perfect game.''
Okeafor admitted he interfered with Seubert and said he expected the refs to throw a flag on him.
''Woulda, shoulda, coulda. I'd have done the same thing again,'' Okeafor said. ''I wasn't going to let him catch it, score and be over then. I was at least going to make them use another play, give us another chance.''
While the NFL's admission was surprising, controversial endings and questionable officiating are nothing new to playoff football.
Last year, an apparent fumble by New England quarterback Tom Brady was ultimately ruled an incomplete pass toward the end of a playoff game against the Oakland Raiders. The Patriots got the ball back, won the game and went on to become Super Bowl champions.
In 2000, the Tennessee Titans pulled off the ''Music City Miracle'' on a controversial call in the final seconds.
Kevin Dyson ran 75 yards for the winning touchdown after catching a lateral from Frank Wycheck on a kickoff return against the Buffalo Bills, who argued in vain that the lateral was actually an illegal forward pass.
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