KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The N.F.L. this season lastly appeared to have completed its objective of “getting back to football” after a number of years of off-field turmoil that ranged from participant misconduct to weekly protests throughout the nationwide anthem. But the league’s bounce-back season was knocked off stride on Sunday, as officers in the two convention championship video games made baffling, controversial calls that to a point overshadowed the in any other case thrilling matchups.
The calls — or noncalls — left legions of followers feeling their groups had been robbed of an opportunity to advance to the Super Bowl, and left others merely confused. Once once more, the dialog Monday targeted as a lot on the which means of penalties like roughing the passer and move interference — and why they have been or weren’t referred to as — because it did about the final result of the video games themselves.
The officiating uproar might result in much more rule modifications, video opinions and coaches’ challenges. Those might make video games even longer regardless of the league’s professed objective of slicing down stoppages. And one other debate is prone to ensue about the use of know-how, which typically fails to offer the closure it guarantees.
The most glaring incident, the one that will be talked about for years, occurred in New Orleans, where the Saints were playing the Los Angeles Rams in the N.F.C. championship game. Late in the fourth quarter, with the score tied and the Saints deep in Los Angeles territory and threatening to take the lead, Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman drilled Saints receiver Tommylee Lewis well before the ball arrived. The referees could have called a penalty for pass interference or for a helmet-to-helmet hit, but they called neither. Judgment calls like pass interference are not subject to video review.
The Saints were forced to immediately settle for a field goal, leaving enough time on the clock for the Rams to march down the field and kick a field goal of their own that sent the game into overtime. The Rams ended up winning, 26-23.
“It was simple: They blew the call,” Saints Coach Sean Payton said after the game. He had spoken to the league office, he said, and officials there had admitted as much to him.
Even Robey-Coleman admitted that, having been beaten on the play, he targeted Lewis instead of the ball and deserved to be penalized.
“I felt more than lucky; I felt blessed,” he said.
The A.F.C. championship game in Kansas City got off to a controversy-free start. But as the Chiefs battled back from a first-half deficit against the New England Patriots, another officiating decision, midway through the fourth quarter, brought the game to a halt. It came when the Chiefs appeared to score a touchdown after Patriots receiver Julian Edelman, serving as the team’s punt returner, seemed to have touched a punt that Kansas City then picked up and took into the end zone, though under the N.FL.’s rules, they would not have been allowed to advance the ball as Edelman never truly had possession.
After a lengthy video review, the referees determined that the ball never touched Edelman, even though replays suggested that it might have just barely nicked his thumbs. The Patriots ended up with the ball, taking some momentum away from Kansas City, but the Chiefs quickly intercepted a Tom Brady pass and went on to score a touchdown anyway. Still, the ruling by the referees was hard to put aside.
“That was a bad play; I felt awful,” Edelman said afterward. “But you have to move on.” (Which he did as the game continued to go back and forth and he caught key passes from Brady.)
Chiefs fans were also aggrieved by a roughing-the-passer call on a second-and-7 in the fourth quarter after defensive lineman Chris Jones landed a seemingly innocuous slap on Brady’s shoulder as he made a throw. A 15-yard penalty was enforced, and the Patriots went on to score one of the go-ahead touchdowns that punctuated the last part of the game.
And finally, after all the controversey, the Patriots completed a 13-play, 75-yard scoring drive in overtime to win the game and move on to the Super Bowl in Atlanta, where they will face the Rams. It will be the third straight Super Bowl for Brady and his coach, Bill Belichick, and their fourth in five seasons. It will also be their ninth Super Bowl in the last two decades, with New England winning five of the previous eight.
As exciting as they were, Sunday’s two games left some fans feeling that asterisks should be affixed to the final scores, a sentiment that may tarnish some of the positive signs for the N.F.L. this season. Though concussions and health issues remain a simmering concern, television viewership rebounded after two years of decline, merchandise sales have jumped and there were significantly fewer off-field controversies compared with recent years.
Much of the renewed interest comes from a bevy of young stars, like quarterback Patrick Mahomes of the Chiefs, and a bunch of scoring records that fell faster than you can say “Brady to Edelman.”
“Last year, the N.F.L. got past some of their big issues, and people were back to enjoying their teams this season,” said Michael Rubin, the founder and executive chairman of Fanatics, the league’s official online retailer. “There’s a great class of new players.”
This time last season, the N.F.L. was struggling with fallout from the furor created by players who were kneeling during the playing of the national anthem to protest racial inequality and allegations of police brutality. In addition to that issue, the owner of the Dallas Cowboys threatened to sue other owners to stop the commissioner’s contract from being extended. And the Carolina Panthers’ owner decided to sell his team after a Sports Illustrated article detailed a culture of sexual harassment at the club.
This season was not entirely free of such controversy. There was the release of a security video showing Kareem Hunt, a star running back on the Chiefs, shoving and kicking a woman. Hunt was suspended indefinitely and then released by his team, and the league was criticized yet again for not doing enough to punish players involved in off-field violence.
The scandal did not dominate the season the way similar incidents have in previous years, largely because the video was released toward the end of the season. By then, interest in games had already rebounded.
Rubin’s company has been one of the biggest beneficiaries. Sales of N.F.L.-licensed merchandise at Fanatics has risen by 25 percent this season — about $100 million.
Mahomes had the third-best-selling jersey, after Bears linebacker Khalil Mack and Brady. Demand for the Mahomes jersey was so strong there has been a backlog of orders.
Other new stars goosed sales, too. After quarterback Baker Mayfield helped Cleveland break its long losing streak, sales of Browns merchandise soared nearly 100 times compared with the same week the season before. Jerseys of two rookies, Giants running back Saquon Barkley and Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, were also among the top 15 best-selling jerseys in the regular season.
“There’s been an influx of these young guys who have come in and done a nice job,” Chiefs Coach Andy Reid said last week. “That’s great for the game. That’s why we’re all doing it.”
These “young guys” are one reason average television viewership rose by 5 percent this season compared with a year ago. Every network, including ESPN, NBC, Fox and CBS, and every time slot — Sundays, Mondays, Thursdays — showed improved numbers.
In addition, teams in major media markets including Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles made the playoffs this season.
With the Saints and the Chiefs now eliminated, the Super Bowl will offer an intriguing contrast. The fourth-youngest team in the league, the Rams, who are led by a 32-year-old coach, Sean McVay, will face a Patriots team that has made participation in the Super Bowl almost an annual event. And then there is the fact that Brady is actually nine years older than McVay and that the 66-year-old Belichick is more than twice his age.
That should make for great conversation — assuming the referees don’t blow any more calls.