Sunday night's Cowboys-Lions Wild Card tilt will forever be remembered for the controversial, game-changing penalty -- er, non-penalty -- that happened with 8:25 left to go in a close, Detroit-led 20-17 ballgame. It was a bungled call by the officials that ultimately changed the course of the game, setting the stage for one of the wackiest, most exciting finishes to an NFL playoff game in recent history.
I'll spare you talk of conspiracies and instead attempt to take you through the game's final eight minutes or so, breaking down the series of crazy events after which Dallas emerged victorious.
The controversial call/non-call
OK, first, let's set up the game situation. The Lions have the ball at the Cowboys' 45-yard line, driving, and now face a third-down situation with a yard to go with 8:25 to go in the game, leading 20-17. Detroit sets up in a "22" personnel grouping -- two tight ends and two running backs -- to make the Cowboys believe a run play is coming.
Dallas crowds the line, hoping to stuff Detroit in its tracks to force a punt. If the Cowboys can, they'll get the ball back down three points and with over eight minutes remaining.
The Lions run play-action, though, and have Brandon Pettigrew downfield by a step or two as he's trailed in coverage by linebacker Anthony Hitchens.
The coverage isn't bad, but the trailing linebacker has his back to the line of scrimmage and that's a throw that Matt Stafford will take any day of the week.
However, it's underthrown. As Pettigrew heads downfield, he has to turn his hips all the way around and attempt to reach down and through the defender -- it comes in at around his stomach area, and actually hits the trailing linebacker in the shoulder pad. There's some contact by Hitchens prior to the pass arriving and he never gets his head turned around to look for the football.
Here's how it looked in real time.
As the ball hits the turf, a flag comes flying in from deep in the middle of the field.
The call is quickly reported on the loud speaker by head referee Pete Morelli as pass interference on Cowboys linebacker Anthony Hitchens. This would mean a first down for Detroit. Boos rain down on the field by the home crowd.
Then, Morelli picked up the flag, announcing that there was no penalty on the play (this announcement was not caught on the TV broadcast).
What the hell happened?
"The back judge threw his flag for defensive pass interference," Morelli told reporter Todd Archer after the game. "We got other information from another official from a different angle that thought the contact was minimal and didn't warrant pass interference. He thought it was face-guarding."
Which official overruled him? "The head linesman," Morelli replied.
The head linesman would be Jerry Bergman, who was situated at the line of scrimmage at the start of the play, and whose responsibility is to watch receivers that come near the sideline in his area to a point, 5 to 7 yards downfield. Here's a snapshot during the play that shows the position of each official near the action.
So, the back judge, situated in the deep middle of the field, was the one who threw the flag. The head linesman, who started at the line of scrimmage then was in charge of keeping an eye on action down his sideline, overruled him. Apparently what he told the back judge was convincing enough for the back judge to acquiesce. I'd guess the back judge didn't have an excellent angle on the infraction as he was approximately 15-20 yards away from the action (at least), and trusted what the head linesman had seen.
The line judge did have a better angle on Hitchens, who was trailing Pettigrew, but apparently thought that it was face-guarding with only minimal contact. Face-guarding, as James Dator explains, is a technique in which the defender looks to block the sight lines of a receiver without initiating contact. This is legal. If he does not initiate contact.
Except, on closer review, there was more than just face-guarding going on. Hitchens could fairly be described as doing any of, and I'm quoting the NFL rulebook now, (c) Grabbing a receiver's arm(s) in such a manner that restricts his opportunity to catch a pass, (d) Extending an arm across the body of a receiver thus restricting his ability to catch a pass, regardless of whether the defender is playing the ball, or (e) Cutting off the path of a receiver by making contact with him without playing the ball.
Basically, it was almost surely the wrong call (though many point to this video to note that Pettigrew got away with a little facemask of his own). Regardless, it looked like pass interference to me.
This type of contact is regularly flagged, but it's also worth noting that defenders regularly get away with this kind of thing too. The game happens at lightning speed and the referees make mistakes, they miss stuff, and they allow a certain amount of contact between opposing teams. It doesn't help that this play happened right in the no-man's land, triangulated between the back judge, head linesman and side judge. None of the three had a great angle on the play, nor were they within probably 10-15 yards of it.
For reference, you can see where the side judge is situated behind the play:
This was probably his perspective as the ball was coming in (but zoomed in maybe 3X):
No matter whose responsibility it was to make the call or overrule it, head referee Pete Morelli's hands were tied.
When asked what he saw, Morelli said, "It's not my responsibility. I'm a hundred miles away."
This is true, as the head referee positions himself behind the running back, well away from the action, and his job wouldn't be to follow the football anyway -- he's in charge of watching the quarterback first, then look to defenders rushing the passer.
Regardless, the situation escalated when Morelli announced that it was pass interference before conferring with the rest of his crew, which, by the way, is an "all-star" crew of officials, not his normal team (as per normal NFL playoffs practices). Only after making the announcement, then discussing it with the crew, did the call change. Morelli copped to not handling this well, particularly because it looked like they were caving to pressure from the Dallas sideline.
"This information came and then the officials got together a little bit later, after it was given to me, the first information. It would have probably been smoother if we got together"
Not making this debacle any better ...
Speaking of caving to pressure from the Dallas sideline, the debacle was further exacerbated by the fact that Dez Bryant was not flagged for running out onto the field without his helmet.
Normally, this would be a penalty. But, as Mike Florio of PFT explained:
Per a league source, referee Pete Morelli or any member of his crew could have flagged Bryant for unsportsmanlike conduct. The NFL doesn't condone players coming that far onto the field to argue a call. However, it appears that, in the heat of the moment, a little leeway (or more than a little leeway) was provided to the Cowboys' bench. Also, Bryant came onto the field while the officials were in the process of trying to figure out whether a foul had or hadn't occurred. That was the primary concern.
It's not over! In fact, the Lions are still winning
OK, so the Cowboys caught a huge break with that non-call. Detroit does still have a lead though, and it has the ball at the Dallas 46-yard line with a fourth-and-1 situation. Do you go for it, try to step on their throats and finish a drive that started at your 5-yard line? Or, do you play it safe and try and play the field position game, pinning the Cowboys deep in their end down three with eight minutes to play?
Jim Caldwell chose the latter after an unsuccessful attempt to get Dallas to jump offsides.
That's when Sam Martin shanked his punt out of bounds 10 yards downfield. *facepalm*
Not Only the Refs
Jason Witten saves the day
After the 5-yard penalty incurred by the Lions for delay of game, then the 10-yard punt, the Cowboys took over at their own 41-yard line (yes,5 yards downfield from where the Lions had a fourth-and-1). They still had to put together a drive, though, and that wouldn't be easy against one of the top defenses in the NFL this season. And, in fact, the Cowboys quickly found themselves in a fourth-and-6 from Detroit's 46.
That's when Romo hit Witten on an option route over the middle that extended the drive.
Witten's route is fire.
Terrance Williams, the goat?
The Cowboys continued their drive and with the help of a defensive holding penalty on Detroit, found themselves set up at the 8-yard line with a first-and-goal. On first down, Romo hit Terrance Williams with an absolute dime backshoulder throw, but it went through his hands.
The Cowboys ran a draw on second down, getting 5 yards and putting themselves in a third-and-goal situation from the 3-yard line. That's when, after letting the go-ahead touchdown pass go through his alligator arms, Williams false started on third down. This pushed Dallas back to the 8-yard line.
And, because I know how much you want to relive my live-tweeting of the game, I sarcastically noted at the time ...
pretty good set of plays for Terry Williams— Danny Kelly (@FieldGulls) January 5, 2015
The Cowboys now had third-and-goal from the 8. Hardly a gimme.
Terrance Williams the G.O.A.T.!
Just when I thought you, Terry, couldn't do anything any worse, you went out --
AND YOU TOTALLY REDEEMED YOURSELF— Danny Kelly (@FieldGulls) January 5, 2015
I give a ton of credit to Williams on this play, and he went from the goat of the game to the Greatest Of All Time (for the briefest of ecstatic moments). His original route, a crosser from right to left, was not open, so he worked his way back to the right and created some separation. Romo's play, though, was masterful, as he navigated a muddied pocket, kept his eyes downfield, avoided the rush, then threw an absolute strike to Williams as he was getting hit from behind awkwardly for the go-ahead and eventual game-winning touchdown.
This is a guy who has had to fight off the "choker" label for much of his career, who broke his back earlier this season, and still went out and put up some of the best stats for a passer in the NFL. He'd just given his team the lead, and the game broadcast caught a poignant moment of pure exhilaration.
Two enormous plays by Romo on a drive that the Cowboys desperately needed, a drive that gave Dallas the lead with 2:39 remaining.
DeMarcus Lawrence the goat?
It wasn't over, though. The Lions still had nearly three minutes, two timeouts, and a two-minute warning to navigate themselves down the field and potentially win the game. They just needed a drive.
Their second play from scrimmage didn't go well, though, and DE Anthony Spencer screamed off the edge to blow up Stafford just before he went to throw it. The ball bounced loose as Spencer dislodged it, and it was picked up by rookie DE DeMarcus Lawrence. That's when visions of Leon Lett were conjured up ...
OH MY GOD that 2nd fumble is so terrible— Danny Kelly (@FieldGulls) January 5, 2015
soooooo, sooooooo, soooooooooooo, soo, sooooo, soo soo terrible— Danny Kelly (@FieldGulls) January 5, 2015
Simply falling down with the football would have almost assured the Cowboys the victory, but as Lawrence looked to run with it, the ball was knocked back out, and recovered by Detroit. Because the ball had been in Lawrence's possession, the Lions got a fresh set of downs to boot.
Detroit was still alive.
DeMarcus Lawrence the G.O.A.T.!
Eight plays later, the Lions had moved into Dallas territory, but were now in a fourth-and-3 situation. Just when I think that you, DeMarcus, can't do something worse, you go out --
AND YOU TOTALLY REDEEM YOURSELF— Danny Kelly (@FieldGulls) January 5, 2015
The strip-sack and recovery by Lawrence seals the deal. He went from the goat of the game to the Greatest Of All Time (for the briefest of ecstatic moments).
A wacky, wild and weird finish to a game that will be remembered for years to come because of the controversial call/non-call. You can say what you want about this game and how the referees affected the outcome, but objectively, it was a fun one to watch.