The Detroit Lions-Dallas Cowboys Wild Card game ended in a fit of absurdity set in motion by an overturned pass interference call. The image is probably seared in your brain -- Anthony Hitchens running over Brandon Pettigrew with his hands in the air like a ghoul, then the subsequent wash of boos and protest, and Dez Bryant running onto the field without a helmet to plead to the refs. The entire scene will likely form the most lasting memory from the weekend. Yet the play itself was technically not the most significant of the game.
Pro Football Reference uses a mathematical model to map win probability for both teams in any game. By a strict percentage, the overturned pass interference call improved the Cowboys' chances of winning by approximately 10 percent (or roughly 12 percentage points from the advantage the Lions would have had if they had been given the benefit of the pass interference call). On Sunday, there were seven plays that gave the Cowboys a greater momentum swing than the blown call.
Three of those blows occurred before the pass interference penalty. They were all weathered by the Lions:
1:50 in 2nd -- 76-yard TD to Terrance Williams on third-and-12
Win prob. change: 87.6% to 67.9% -- Diff.: -19.7%
15:00 in 3rd -- Matthew Stafford intercepted by Kyle Wilber on first-and-10
Win prob. change: 77.0% to 60.1 % -- Diff: -16.9%
5:58 in 3rd -- 43-yard pass to Dez Bryant to Lions 7-yard line on third-and-10
Win prob. change: 88.7% to 74.0% -- Diff.: -14.7%
After all three of those instances, the Lions responded with a score or key stops to reset their advantage. When the Lions had third-and-1 from the Cowboys' 46-yard line with 8:25 to play, they had a win probability of 77.4 percent. Then the botched call occurred, but even afterwards the Lions were in good shape. They had a 67.4 percent chance of winning they faced fourth-and-1, a figure that dropped to 65.1 percent following a delay of game penalty. Then disaster No. 1 struck.
8:18 in 4th -- Sam Martin punt goes 10 yards, out of bounds at Cowboys 41-yard line
Win prob. change: 65.1% to 53.5% -- Diff.: -11.6%
A weekend of awful punting in seemingly every Wild Card game was capped by Martin's stinker. Factoring in the delay of game penalty, the Lions netted five yards by punting instead of going for a conversion and risking a turnover on downs. Punting was likely the wrong decision, even if Martin had been able to get a decent punt off. Martin's shank cemented the decision as one of the worst of the game (please note that Martin is pretty good as far as punters go -- shit happens).
Yet after all that, the Lions were still better than a coin flip favorite to win. The defense stiffened up immediately following the play, and were able to force the Cowboys into a fourth-and-6 on the Lions' 44-yard line. Before the snap, the Lions' win probability had jumped up to 65.5 percent. And then --
6:00 in the 4th -- 21-yard pass to Jason Witten to Lions 21-yard line on fourth-and-6
Win prob. change: 65.5% to 33.5% -- Diff.: -32.0%
The biggest play of the game wasn't a score, but a pivotal fourth down conversion just four yards further down the field than the Lions were when they took their delay of game penalty. As Danny Kelly points out, Witten ran a masterful route.
That play shifted win probability in favor of the Cowboys for good, though they were still down 20-17 at that point. There would be two more big swing on that drive, however.
3:40 in 4th -- Defensive holding penalty on DeAndre Levy on third-and-7 at Lions 13-yard line
Win prob. change: 39.0% to 20.5% -- Diff.: -18.5%
Levy tackled a Cowboys running back coming out of the backfield. The flag was earned. That doesn't mean Lions fans weren't still fuming:
Nothing to see here. pic.twitter.com/paCEu9ssFP— Isaac (@WorldofIsaac) January 5, 2015
2:39 in 4th -- 8-yard TD pass to Terrance Williams on third-and-goal
Win prob. change: 38.1% to 6.8% (after XP). Diff.: -31.3%
And the clincher. The Lions' win probability fell to 12.6 percent when Williams caught the ball, and again to 6.8 percent after Dan Bailey easily booted his extra point. On the Cowboys' final scoring drive, the Lions gave up a fourth-and-6 conversion, and two third-and-longs. The Lions might be able to make a case for a missed hold or two. Cowboys fans have made the case that Pettigrew should have also been flagged on the infamous reversal, and that referees missed a potential rough penalty earlier in the game.
No, it's not fair that the game was tainted by uneven officiating, but the overturned call was not the sole reason for Lions' downfall. It was one sizable hunk of debris in an avalanche of nuttiness. It was simply the most memorable part of a game that won't soon be forgotten, fondly or not.