By Ben Austro, FootballZebras.com, special to NFP

The winter winds of December announce the push to the playoffs. Who will get the top seed -- from the 17 officiating crews?

It is a 17-week process (actually, 14 this year) and the officiating department continues to evaluate every crew for that potential playoff berth. While one high-profile mistake does not kill an official's playoff chances, a few calls can lead to a January ice fishing assignment in Minnesota rather than an on-field assignment in a postseason game.

The puzzling call that jumps out this season is rarely seen: the inadvertent whistle. After already addressing previous instances of inadvertent whistles, the league has now shifted to "no comment" mode when asked. And, really, what more could they say? By my count, there have been five instances this season (two in Week 13), and I cannot even recall five instances before this season. While one errant tweet was erased by replay (and another should have), it is still marked down by game supervisors as the cardinal sin of officiating. No one can say for sure the cause is the referee's lockout earlier this season or if there is some other reason, but the pandemic-like outbreak of quick whistles must be addressed by the league office.

By the way, we heard two inadvertent whistles in the Divisional Playoffs last season. Let's hope this is the last we hear it.

Line of scrimmage goes out of bounds, too

Jim HarbaughJim Harbaugh was on the wrong side of two critical calls last Sunday.

One odd situation in St. Louis wound up giving the Rams two points on an incomplete pass by 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. While scrambling into the end zone, Kaepernick heaved a pass out of bounds to avoid the sack. Since he was out of the pocket, Kaepernick only needed to make the line of scrimmage to avoid the intentional grounding foul, which he did if you count where the ball landed out of bounds. Although the wording is clunky in the rulebook, Rule 8-2-1-Item 1 does count the line of scrimmage extended beyond the boundary lines:

"Intentional grounding will not be called when a passer, who is outside, or has been outside, the tackle position throws a forward pass that lands at or beyond the line of scrimmage, even if no offensive player(s) have a realistic chance to catch the ball (including when the ball lands out of bounds over the sideline or
endline)."

In this case, the ball sailed over the head linesman's head, so he did not get a precise read on the landing point of the ball. Referee Carl Cheffers is responsible to watch for late hits on the quarterback, so
he could not correct the head linesman. While it looked like intentional grounding, clearly it was not, and the 49ers penalty resulted in a safety.

Six-man crew

In the Monday night game, a national audience got a glimpse of six-man mechanics as line judge Tom Stephan left the game with an apparent hamstring injury. To fill the vacancy, Tony Steratore (brother of head referee Gene Steratore on another crew) moved up from back judge (center-deep position), leaving the side judge and field judge downfield. During punts and field goals, Tony Steratore went back to his original position.

His versatility in a tight divisional game on Monday night was surely noted in the evaluation.

Ben Austro is the founder and editor of FootballZebras.com. Follow him on Twitter: @footballzebras