With the Detroit Lions leading 20-17 midway through the fourth quarter of Sunday's wild-card game against the Dallas Cowboys, Detroit faced a 3rd-and-1, when Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford threw a deep pass to tight end Brandon Pettigrew.
The pass was incomplete, and a penalty flag was thrown for pass interference on Cowboys outside linebacker Anthony Hitchens. The flag was then picked up with no explanation whatsoever, leaving the players, broadcasters and audience confused.
Here's the play that drew the initial flag:
After the game, Lions head coach Jim Caldwell told reporters the explanation he got for the picked-up flag was "not good enough."
Referee Pete Morelli conducted an interview with a pool reporter after the game and said the following about the call:
“The back judge flew his flag for pass interference," Morelli said. "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.”
Morelli subsequently clarified that it was the head linesman who made the overruling call and emphasized that face-guarding was illegal in college football but legal in the NFL. Morelli also said that the officials "probably" should have waited to initially announce the penalty until they had discussed it together.
Some Lions players were confused by that ruling and several other calls as well.
"I can't explain it," Pettigrew told NFL.com's Albert Breer. "I tried to make a play on the ball. He was in the way of the ball. To me, I don't really understand them picking up the flag. I don't understand what they saw right there. I honestly don't know what to say about it. It's baffling."
Lions receiver Golden Tate, who caught a touchdown on Sunday, agreed with Pettigrew's assessment.
"Once you spot the ball 15 yards ahead, or wherever the play ended, I thought what stood, went," added Tate. "I was unaware you could have a unofficial review by looking at the jumbotron a few times, and then go back, take the ball all the way back and make it fourth-and-1."
The Lions also expressed frustration that Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant was not flagged for entering the playing field with his helmet off to argue with an official following the initial pass interference call.
FOX Sports rules analyst Mike Pereira, the former NFL vice president of officiating, said the flag shouldn't have been picked up and that Hitchens committed both defensive pass interference and defensive holding on the play.
After a delay of game penalty was called on fourth down, a ten-yard punt gave the Cowboys the ball at their own 41. On that drive, the Cowboys eventually scored a touchdown to take a 24-20 lead, and used up more than five minutes of clock.
- Sarah Barshop and Scooby Axson