With a 3 point lead, 8 minutes to go, and the ball on Dallas’ 46-yard-line, the Detroit Lions appeared to be on the brink of ending a 24-year playoff losing streak. But the lead maintained through three-and-a-half quarters, and the cautious optimism kindled over 17 weeks of gridiron play, took only seconds to extinguish.
On third down with one yard to go, QB Matthew Stafford attempted a pass to TE Brandon Pettigrew, falling incomplete after a block by Dallas LB Anthony Hitchens.
What happened next is quickly becoming the stuff of playoff lore.
The crowd erupted as penalty flags flew.
“Pass interference, number 59 defense, automatic first down,” the referee announced.
To Lions fans, the penalty came as a saving grace: giving the offense a fresh set of downs deep into Cowboy territory.
But as quickly as the penalty flag was thrown and broadcast, it vanished. And the players from both teams, already in position downfield, walked back to the 46-yard-line.
For the Lions, the game’s tide turned from bad to worse.
Detroit brought out punter Sam Martin after trying to draw Dallas’ defense offside without success. Martin whiffed the kick, sending the ball only ten yards. And so, with renewed vigor and excellent field position, the Cowboys drove the ball down for what became the game-winning touchdown.
Many have denounced the referee’s decision to revoke the critical penalty call as a critical mistake.
Stafford’s in-game microphone recorded his frustration with the decision.
“That’s unbelievable… and you know it,” he said to the referee. “You know it is, though… How does that get overturned? …. Congratulations. It’s unbelievable.”
When he saw the play and the subsequent call, former NFL Senior Director of Officiating, and current Fox Sports Rules Analyst, Mike Pereira was just as surprised as Stafford.
“For me you can’t pick that flag up. Hitchens was not playing the ball, shoved with his left arm first, Pettigrew came back and tried to get to the ball—couldn’t—that’s pass interference,” he said in a post-game review.
Even President Barack Obama weighed in on the decision in a Tuesday interview with The Detroit News.
“The call is announced and then reversed without explanation. I haven’t seen that before — so I will leave it up to the experts to make the judgment as to why that happened — but I can tell you if I was a Lions fan I’d be pretty aggravated.”
Statistically, a Detroit win would have been legendary. In their 11 playoff appearances since the Super Bowl was created in 1967, the Lions have posted a 1-10 overall record and have never made a Super Bowl appearance.
Their single playoff win was scored at home against Dallas—in 1991.
In the Lions’ most recent post-season appearance before Sunday (a 2011 wild card game), the New Orleans Saints routed them them 28-45.
But in spite of all of the controversy surrounding the end of Sunday’s game, Lions fans might find solace in Head Coach Jim Caldwell’s impressive first season, and in the strong performance of the Detroit defense: the NFL’s top-ranked. When coupled with the Lions’ strong offensive weapons: Joique Bell, Reggie Bush, Theo Riddick, Golden Tate, and Stafford, there may be reason to expect an increasingly dominant Detroit next fall.