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Eric Weddle was a split second from potential infamy on Sunday.
The recently signed Los Angeles Rams safety got flagged for what looked like a disastrous penalty late in Sunday's playoff game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. With 12:28 remaining and the Bucs looking to rally from a 27-13 deficit, Tom Brady looked deep down the sideline to Mike Evans on fourth-and-14.
Jalen Ramsey knocked the ball to the turf as Evans attempted to corral it at the 5-yard line. Weddle then cracked Evans in the facemask with his own helmet, drawing an obvious flag for unnecessary roughness.
the Rams brought Eric Weddle out of retirement for this pic.twitter.com/bZwVOztTnI
— Christian D'Andrea, 2021 PAC champion (@TrainIsland) January 23, 2022
Split second saves Weddle, Rams
For a moment, the Bucs and a packed house at Raymond James Stadium believed the home team was gifted a reprieve in the form of a first down in Rams territory. Instead, the play resulted in a turnover on downs to the Rams.
Let referee Shawn Hochuli explain:
"There was a personal foul, unnecessary hit by the defense," Hochuli said in explaining the penalty. "However, by rule, this action is considered a dead ball foul, which means it happened after the play was over. Therefore, it's a turnover on downs because the offense did not reach the line of gain."
So the Rams were flagged. But because Weddle made contact a moment after the ball hit the ground, the Rams had already been awarded possession. Had the ball still been in the air when the foul occurred, it would have been a live ball foul that resulted in a first down for the Bucs. Instead, the 15-yard penalty was enforced on the ensuing Rams possession.
Considering how the frantic final minutes of the game played out, that fraction of a second looms very large in the chase for the Super Bowl. The Bucs rallied for two unanswered touchdowns following Weddle's penalty to tie the game at 27-27 in the final minute of regulation.
But a late 44-yard pass from Matthew Stafford to Cooper Kupp set Rams kicker Matt Gay up for the game-winning field goal as time expired to send the Rams to the NFC championship game vs the San Francisco 49ers. Had Weddle's penalty led to a Bucs first down, there's no telling how things would have played out.