While watching the AFC Game yesterday, I heard the CBS announcers proclaim that the referees “let the players play” during the playoffs or something to that effect.  The idea is that referees call less penalties in the playoffs than they do in the regular season.  Whether it’s the fear of determining a big game on a playoff call or just having the best crews doing the playoff games, there is a difference in the way the game is called.

With the help of nflpenalties.com, we can analyze how the playoffs affect the referees’ tendencies to throw the flag.  Below is a table showing the percentages of plays that are called for penalties on a per play basis.

SeasonReg. Season PenaltiesPostseason Penalties% Decrease

So on average, a team was penalized on 5.75% of all plays during the 2015-16 regular season.  That number has dropped to 4.25% during the admittedly small sample of ten playoff games this year.  But when you look at the results year after year, the trend becomes apparent.

Let’s look at one penalty in further detail: defensive pass interference.  This is such a huge call for a referee to make because it is a spot foul.  Calling a 35-yard penalty based on a judgment call is a much bigger swing than the 5-yard illegal contact and likely harder for a referee to make that call in these bigger postseason games.

The vine above is a good example of this.  I believe this would be called pass interference in a regular season game, but I think most (non-Patriot fan) viewers are also content with a no-call in this instance. But that is all conjecture, let’s again take a look at the numbers to see what they reveal.

In the 1,280 regular season games over the past five seasons there have been 1,259 defensive pass interference flags thrown (some were declined or offset but the call was made).  That is an average of 0.98 calls per game.  During the 54 postseason games over that same span, 42 DPI’s were called, an average of 0.78 per game.

Perhaps you believe that better defenders lead to less penalties or that better referee crews are used. Whatever the case may be, one thing is clear.  As the stakes are raised in the NFL playoffs, the number of penalty flags thrown drops.