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Chiefs Fans Sound a Familiar Refrain: Blame the Refs

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The Chiefs’ Eric Murray, far left, diving, was called for unnecessary roughness for a questionable hit on the Rams’ Robert Woods on Monday.CreditCreditSean M. Haffey/Getty Images

After the exhilarating 54-51 Rams-Chiefs game, fans of the losing team might have been expected to shrug and say they simply came up a little short. Especially given that Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes had three interceptions.

But many Chiefs fans have a different take: They are blaming the refs.

It has been a fraught season for officiating in the N.F.L., with the spotlight shining more hotly than usual on officiating blunders. Perhaps there have been more this season; perhaps fans have just become more eager to pin the blame somewhere other than on their beloved team.

That the officials came under fire on Monday night was perhaps more surprising because the N.F.L. had assembled a supercrew for the game, bringing in top officials from around the league to join the crew regularly led by the referee Clete Blakeman.

But if the N.F.L. hoped to have the ideal — officials who are barely noticed — they failed. Chiefs fans began complaining about allegedly soft calls against their team almost immediately. In the first quarter, the Chiefs were flagged eight times for 82 yards while the Rams weren’t penalized at all. Quite a few of the calls seemed to be on marginal plays: A routine tackle became unnecessary roughness, a seemingly gentle hand on a receiver became a block in the back.

(Even the most suspicious Chiefs fans acknowledged that things evened up a bit in the second half. The final figures for the Chiefs were 13 penalties for 135 yards. The Rams had 8 for 60.)

“Too many penalties, a lot of penalties in the first quarter,” Chiefs Coach Andy Reid said after the game. “I don’t know about those, but they called them.”

Some no-calls also raised the ire of Chiefs fans. Rams defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh slammed his arm into Mahomes’s neck on a tackle. There was no whistle.

The former N.F.L. coach Tony Dungy was one of those on Twitter who beefed about the officiating, although not necessarily a bias toward one side. Rather, he felt as if it was the offense in general that was being favored. “This N.F.L. officiating is hard to watch,” he said during the game. “If those two calls are penalties, the secondaries will have no chance.”

He presciently added, “There will be 100 points scored tonight.”

Plenty of conspiracy theorists were mumbling, without evidence, that the N.F.L. has an incentive to boost football in a big city like Los Angeles. Many called the supercrew not an elite group with the best chance to call the game fairly, but a handpicked unit designed to do Commissioner Roger Goodell’s dirty work.

Though there may not be a pro-L.A. cabal in the front office, it is true that the resurgent Rams have been embraced by a city previously reluctant to go all-in on the N.F.L. after years without a team. Fans quickly snapped up the tickets for the game when it was hurriedly rescheduled from Mexico City earlier in the week.

Of course, quarterback Jared Goff and the elite Rams team assembled by the young coach Sean McVay have an awful lot to do with that resurgence.

Officiating has been a recurring issue in the N.F.L. this season. Earlier in the year, the main dispute was about a new set of rules over tackles leading with the helmet. The inconsistency and sometimes overzealousness of enforcement of those rules seem to be lessening.

Over all, penalties this year are actually slightly down: to 6.5 per game per team from 6.7 a year ago. Ten years ago, in 2008, the figure was 5.6.

Of course, controversial officiating is nothing new. Remember the Fail Mary in 2012, when a receiver and a defensive back each grabbed a pass? One replacement official signaled a touchdown and the other signaled a touchback. (Eventually the Seahawks were credited with a game-winning touchdown against the Packers.) In 2016, The New York Times ran an article under the headline, “ The 10 Times N.F.L. Referees May Have Blown It This Season.”

The Rams did surely benefit at least a little from being the home team. Research in virtually every sport has consistently shown that home teams get an officiating edge. The theory was popularized by the 2011 book “Scorecasting” by Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim. According to the book, away teams get half a penalty more per game.

Soccer referees call more penalties against the visitors. In baseball, there are fewer called strikes in big situations against the home team. The authors attribute this to the simple fact that referees, like most people, simply want to be liked and avoid the boos.

But all the data and statistics you can muster aren’t going to stop the most aggrieved Kansas City fans on message boards, Twitter and talk radio from seeing darker forces at work.

A poll on Chiefs Planet found that only 30 percent of respondents felt the N.F.L. and the refs were “out to get us.” But another 22 percent were willing to go to “maybe.”

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