This Play Didn't Decide The Game
Predictably, it has already started.
A screenshot from behind the play. Another from the side. A few shots with words scribbled on them and circles over holding calls. Wait, here’s the Zapruder GIF that clearly shows…
Just stop with the grand conspiracies. The Lions got beaten by the Cowboys. Period.
I understand the pain you’re feeling, Lions fans. Anybody who has ever cared about a team, spent 17 weeks of the regular season (and who knows how many long months in the offseason) obsessing over it, knows the deal. And for Detroit fans, this hurts worse than it would for other fan bases. Your team hasn’t won a title since 1957, and has appeared in one conference championship game since the 1970 merger (1991). Detroit hasn't even won a playoff game since the George H.W. Bush administration.
But then on Sunday the Lions jumped out to a 14-0 lead on the road against the Cowboys, and led 20-7 midway through the third quarter. The defense held Tony Romo, Dez Bryant and DeMarco Murray in check for nearly the entire game. On offense, Matthew Stafford played exceedingly well. Calvin Johnson didn’t really break free of the constant double teams, but Golden Tate popped for a 51-yard touchdown. Joique Bell and Reggie Bush combined to average a solid 4.0 per carry.
The Lions even had Romo in prime choking position … but it wasn’t enough. The roller-coaster ride that is an NFL season came to a crashing halt Detroit fans when Stafford was sacked and fumbled in the final minute, sealing a 24-20 loss and sending the Lions home for a very long offseason.
For fans, it’s a punch to the stomach, and the finality of it stinks. The natural reaction is to find someone to blame. The Lions played too well and too hard for too long to scapegoat any players. That’s how you arrive at the officials. All the ammunition you needed was right there with 8:25 to play. I don’t need to explain the play to you. It’s burned in your memory.
Here are my two cents. When the play happened, I thought it could go either way, but I thought a flag wouldn’t be thrown because the ball hit the defender, linebacker Anthony Hitchens, in the back before contact was made. When defensive pass interference was announced, I thought, “Well, if you don’t turn your head around as a defender, you don’t have anybody to blame when a close call goes against you.”
When the flag was picked up, I thought the officials did the right thing and got the call correct, despite the protests of former NFL officials like Fox analyst Mike Pereira.
I wouldn’t have had a problem if they called defensive holding, because Hitchens grabbed Brandon Pettigrew’s jersey, even though the hold didn’t slow Pettigrew down. And Bryant definitely should have been flagged for coming onto the field to protest the call; there’s no room for that nonsense, especially in the postseason.
But I didn’t see pass interference. I saw Pettigrew push off twice, along with the one push by Hitchens at the end. The officials let them play, which is what you want in that situation—and really all season, but it’s the National Fantasy League, and God forbid someone touches a receiver or quarterback. I didn’t see Pettigrew come back for the ball, which surely would have drawn contact and a flag. I saw a poorly thrown pass by Stafford to a tight end who had a five-inch height advantage (and several more if you factor wingspan and vertical leap) on the defender. If Stafford makes a better throw, Pettigrew makes the catch or stands a better chance to draw the flag. I saw head linesman Jerry Bergman, who was 15 yards closer and had a better angle on the play and the ball, tell back judge Lee Dyer that he had a better feel for the call. He stuck to his guns, correctly.
Was it clunky the way referee Pete Morelli handled the entire situation? Certainly. But, really, if he didn’t make the initial call but instead picked up the flag after a conference with the other officials, would the outcry be any different? Of course not.
Regardless, that one play didn’t cost the Lions the game. Even if they got the flag at the Dallas 29-yard line, the Cowboys could have held Detroit to a field goal and won with a touchdown.
But forget about the hypotheticals. The Lions had several chances to overcome that instance of bad luck (if you view it that way). Feel you got screwed by the officials? Fine, take matters into your own hands and go for it on fourth-and-1 in Dallas territory. Lions coach Jim Caldwell should have taken a timeout, refocused his team and gone for it. If you don’t make it, there’s a good chance you get the ball back with more time than the 2:32 Detroit was ultimately left with, tied or trailing. But Caldwell, as he is wont to do, froze in a big spot. He got out-coached by Jason Garrett, who ended up going for it on fourth-and-6 at the Detroit 42 when he didn’t have to.
But even with Caldwell’s mental miscue, there were still 23-plus plays of football left for the Lions to make something happen, and they didn’t. It started with Sam Martin’s 10-yard punt (that’s not a typo). The Cowboys began the game-winning drive at their own 41.
The Lions allowed conversions on a fourth down and two third downs during that drive, including the eight-yard touchdown pass to Terrence Williams. The Lions gave the Cowboys two first downs on (correctly called) penalties. And then, with plenty of time left to win the game, the Lions allowed not one but two strip-sacks of Stafford, one of which the Cowboys even gave back.
Were any of those plays handed to the Cowboys by the officials? Did the officials make sure that Detroit only scored three points in the second half?
If the Lions make just one more play after the picked-up flag, they win the game. They didn’t, and that’s why they lost. Not the officials, nor any grand conspiracy supposedly hatched in the league office. Over the course of 125 offensive plays between Dallas and Detroit, the Cowboys were the better team, even with a missed gimme 41-yard field goal. They converted more third downs, plus two fourth downs, and turned the ball over fewer times. Detroit had a chance to bury Dallas early in the second half and didn’t.
I know, Lions fans—the feeling you have in the pit of your stomach is awful. But it’s not a feeling of being robbed by the officials. Deep down you know your team came up short despite multiple chances to beat a better team. After all those cheers you invested, that’s understandably tough to stomach.
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