The 2014-15 NFL Playoffs haven’t exactly been a thrill ride and a half to watch, but one game-The Lions vs. the Cowboys-was enough to grab our attention. It just wasn’t the way he had in mind.
The Cowboys got their 2nd playoff win since post-1996, both with Tony Romo. The Lions, meanwhile, still have yet to win a playoff game since 1991, and Matthew Stafford is now 0-18 on the road against teams with winning records. Both Romo and Stafford didn’t exactly play lights out, but put their team in position to win multiple times in this game. Guys like Golden Tate, Calvin Johnson, Dez Bryant and Terrence Williams played well for both sides as well.
On a weekend with 3 disappointing playoff games, this one was a thriller to the very end. Sadly, this great game will be remembered by one play. With 8:25 left in the 4th quarter, on 3rd and 1, the Lions had the ball at Dallas’ 46-yard line. Matthew Stafford threw a pass deep left to tight end Brandon Pettigrew. Cowboys linebacker Anthony Hitchens broke up the play. A flag was thrown after the incompletion, citing defensive pass interference on Hitchens.
At this point, it looked like the Lions would continue their drive. But the officiating crew, for reasons left unexplained at the time (it was later revealed that a “second official” saw the play from a different angle, one where there apparently was NOT pass interference on Hitchens), picked up the yellow flag and reversed the call. I’ve never seen a call reversed AFTER the penalty was announced by an official, and there are striking similarities to the Jacksonville Jaguars-Cleveland Browns game in 2001 (known as Bottlegate), another game where the officiating crew stepped past their own boundaries.
The rest is history. The Cowboys went on to win the game 24-20 on a game winning Romo touchdown pass to Terrence Williams, and will face the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Divisional Round.
Lions fans’ anger at the officiating is justifiable. This was one of the most poorly officiated games I’ve ever seen, and one could argue the worst since the 2009 NFC Championship Game (where the officials made a number of questionable calls in the New Orleans Saints’ favor at home against the Minnesota Vikings).
Former NFL Vice President of Officiating and NFL on Fox rules analyst Mike Pereira thought Hitchens should’ve been penalized for defensive pass interference, and even Dallas strong safety Barry Church thought the same. However, I’ve seen zero evidence to confirm that single officiating blunder cost the Lions the win.
To back up my statement, first, let’s take a look at the “defensive pass interference” itself. There was certainly contact made on the play. By both Pettigrew and Hitchens. Both players were grabbing each other, making contact 5 yards past the line of scrimmage, and tugging each other to see how much contact they can get away with This occurs all the time during single coverage in the NFL (defenses like the Seattle Seahawks secondary actually plays this sort of aggressive style), and whether or not a flag is thrown depends on the context and the situation.
There’s also this: Pettigrew grabbed Hitchens’ facemask for a split second, enough to prevent him from turning around and breaking up the pass. That’s offensive pass interference. Both Hitchens and Pettigrew had their hands on each other as the ball hit their general area. So if there was a reason flags needed to have been thrown, there would’ve been two (one on Hitchens and one on Pettigrew). The penalties would’ve offset, and it would redo 3rd and 1 either way.
Dez Bryant ran on the field and complained about the call, and a flag that wasn’t thrown for unsportsmanlike conduct should have been. But that’s offset by the fact that the original flag for defensive pass interference should never have been thrown in the first place. As for the actual throw, it wasn’t good, as Stafford underthrew the ball.
The Cowboys certainly got a few questionable calls in their favor on the final drive, and a few suspect non-calls as well (such as the Dez Bryant hold on a DeAndre Levy penalty). Again, it’s offset by a few questionable calls that went in Detroit’s favor, such as a running-into-the-kicker penalty early in the first quarter.
The Lions shot themselves in the foot on numerous occasions in addition. The most notable, to me, is what occurred after the controversial flag-pickup. Lions head coach Jim Caldwell, facing a 4th and 1 on Dallas’s 46-yard-line, elected to take a delay of game penalty, and punt the ball back to the Cowboys. Not only was this a terrible coaching decision, but the punt itself by Sam Martin was atrocious; only covering 10 yards.
It wasn’t like the Lions got great field position either. They had terrible field position, starting from their 5-yard line, and at one point, the 3-yard line, after a 2-yard loss on a Joique Bell run to the right end. The Lions in 7 plays before the controversy drove for 46 yards, with an average of 6.6 yards per play. To put this into perspective, the Green Bay Packers had the highest Team Yards Per Play this season, with 6.2 (via teamrankings.com).
Detroit had a load of momentum on their side thanks to that drive. Regardless if they failed to convert the 4th and 1 had they gone for it, they’d still have to defend the ball, just near the 50-yard line. Dallas was down 3, so at the very least they needed a field goal, which would give the Lions the ball with a tie game. Instead, Caldwell cost his team with that poor decision. As insult to injury, Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett, with 6:00 left, went for it on 4th and 6 at Detroit’s 42, ending with Romo throwing an excellent strike to Jason Witten for a 21-yard gain and the first down.
There were also several other situations in which the Lions shot themselves in the foot on Sunday:
–In the first half, the Lions defense allowed 146 yards on 5 drives (a 74-yard drive by the Cowboys on their last drive of the first half was the outlier), and the offense put up 254 yards on 5 drives of their own. In the 2nd half, the defense gave up 171 on 4 drives (excluding the kneel-down drive at the end of the game). The first drive of the half only went -4 yards, while the final 3 went for a combined 175 yards. The offense, on the other hand, managed 130 yards on 6 drives. The first drive technically didn’t even happen, as a batted pass resulted in a Stafford interception on the first play.
–The Lions front 7 completely dominated the Cowboys front 7 in the rush attack as well as destroying the pass protection, as Tony Romo was rarely given time to throw the ball. In the 2nd half, the Cowboys protection adjusted and Detroit failed to get a grip on them for the rest of the game.
–In the 2nd half, Detroit failed to convert on 3rd down a total of 4 times. 3 of those came at least 3 yards from the first down marker. All 3 of those occasions resulted in incomplete passes from Stafford.
–The Lions had 2:32 left to try and win the game. Stafford fumbled the ball to rookie DeMarcus Lawrence, who fumbled it back to Detroit, resulting in a first down. Afterwards, Detroit only drove for 24 yards on 8 plays for an abysmal 3.0 yards per play.
The officiating was terrible for both sides of the field, but to see people act like it’s a new occurrence is ludicrous. The NFL is hugely influenced by officiating, good or bad, and several games come to mind (The Tuck Rule game, 2009 NFC Championship Game, Super Bowl XL, Fail Mary, Jerome Bettis Coin Toss, etc.).
But we’ve seen opposing teams overcome this kind of adversity numerous times. Bottom-line, Detroit did not. They made too many of their own mistakes to get the benefit of doubt. People can blame the flag-pickup all they want, and many media outlets probably will, but the facts say Detroit screwed themselves as much, if not more so, than the officiating did late in the 4th quarter.
It’s probably not a coincidence that this controversy came during a game featuring the widely hated America’s Team.