The Lions play the Seahawks on Saturday night to kick off the NFC side of the 2017 playoffs, and Detroit has a score to settle with its cross-conference rival. If not for a totally illegal-but-uncalled play by Seattle linebacker K.J. Wright last season, the Lions could be coming into the playoffs with some additional confidence against Seattle.
Instead, this casual swat of a Calvin Johnson fumble in the end zone allowed the Seahawks to escape with a controversial win and gave Detroit an ax to grind in the lead up to Saturday’s game:
In Week 4 of the 2015 season, the Lions trailed the Seahawks 13-10 with 6:43 to play. Matthew Stafford led his offense down the field and into position to tie or take the lead with under two minutes left. With third-and-1 looming, he hit Johnson on a short route to the left side of the field. Three defenders converged on the All-Pro wideout as he neared the goal line, where safety Kam Chancellor separated Johnson from the ball before he could score some game-changing points.
The ball caromed into the end zone, where an all-alone Wright just had to snatch it to seal the game. Instead, he batted it out of the field of play. The referees, in perfect position to make a call, ruled the result a touchback — Seahawks ball.
Only it was the wrong call.
The rule on Wright’s swat is clear, even if the end judge blanked it entirely at a pivotal moment in front of a national audience. Rule 12.1.8 says:
A player may not bat or punch: (a) a loose ball (in field of play) toward opponent's goal line; (b) a loose ball (that has touched the ground) in any direction, if it is in either end zone; (c) a backward pass in flight may not be batted forward by an offensive player.
The penalty for illegal batting is 10 yards. Since it was a live ball foul, the team last in possession would retain possession. The Lions should have had the ball, first-and-goal, down 13-10.
Instead, they had two timeouts and 105 seconds left to get the ball back and move into field goal position, at the very least. Three plays later, Russell Wilson connected with Jermaine Kearse on a 50-yard pass to seal the game.
Wright’s illegal bat didn’t win the game for the Seahawks. But it certainly made things a lot easier.
Wright, to his credit, thought he was making the smart play by taking a presumptive touchback rather than possibly fumbling a loose ball.
"I wanted to just knock it out of bounds and not try to catch it and fumble it," Wright said after the game. "I just tried to make a good play for my team."
Wright and the officials on the field may have been confused, but the NFL’s main office understood something was afoot right away.
"We'll review all the angles," Senior Vice President of Officiating Dean Blandino said after the incident. "On TV it looked like the Seahawks player intentionally hit the ball. That is a foul. The result of the penalty would give Detroit possession enforced at the spot of the fumble. With half the distance to the goal line, Detroit would have had a first down."
“You can’t bat the ball in any direction in the end zone,” Blandino bluntly told the NFL Network panel. “Any end zone.”
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The win kept Seattle from falling into a 1-3 hole. After a 2-2 start, the Seahawks eventually rallied to a wild card bid before bowing out in the Divisional round of the playoffs. The Lions, on the other hand, were all but left for dead at 0-4. Detroit went 7-9 in a season that proved to be future Hall of Famer Johnson’s last.
On Saturday night, the Lions will try to earn their first playoff victory in 25 years. It just so happens that it’ll be in the same place where a win was snatched away the last time they visited.