It was the play of the game and it didn’t actually happen. Or, at least that’s what the officiating crew said.
Early in the fourth quarter, with the Detroit Lions leading and driving in Cowboys’ territory on Sunday at AT&T Stadium, a flag was thrown on an incomplete pass on third and 1.
The flag came from the back judge, who was about 30 yards from the play that had defensive end Anthony Hitchens guarding receiver Brandon Pettigrew out in the flat.
Hitchens, with his back to quarterback Matthew Stafford, made contact with Pettigrew, which seemed obvious to many that he had been flagged for pass interference.
The call was even announced and the penalty marked off before the crew reversed course and announced that there was no flag on the play.
The Lions tried to get the Cowboys to jump offside on fourth down before taking a penalty and punting. The punt was shanked, giving Dallas the ball at its 41.
The Cowboys drove 11 plays for the game-winning touchdown, an 8-yard pass in the back of the end zone from Tony Romo to Terrance Williams with 2:32 remaining.
The 24-20 win sends the Cowboys to the NFC divisional playoff against the Packers in Green Bay at noon Sunday.
Mike Pereira, former Vice President of Officiating for the NFL and now a Fox Sports commentator, offered some of the sharpest criticism.
“To 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, but couldn’t. That’s pass interference and was correctly called on the field,” said Pereira, who wondered if the confusion among the crew was because they hadn’t worked together all season. “All I know is this: the Cowboys caught a huge, huge break.”
After the game, referee Pete Morelli admitted the crew should have waited to discuss the play before announcing the call and marking off the yardage. He said the head linesman, who was closer to the action, thought the contact was minimal and “didn’t warrant pass interference.”
“He thought it was face-guarding,” Morelli said. “The information came and then officials got together a little bit later, after it was given to me, the first information. It would have probably been smoother if we got together.”
Players from both teams were flabbergasted by the turn of events.
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” Cowboys safety Barry Church said. “We were able to get away with one right there. I’d never seen it, then there was no explanation. I was just glad we were on the winning side of that call right there.”
Pereira added that he thought Pettigrew was held on the play at the line of scrimmage.
“I did not get an explanation,” Pettigrew said. “I thought it was ridiculous, to be honest. He ran threw me, pretty much, trying to get back to the ball. To me, it was obvious.”
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones thought a pass interference call was wrong from the jump, of course.
“We didn’t necessarily think that was a pass interference call when they called it,” Jones said, while acknowledging he’d never seen a call reversed so late in the process.
Hitchens was unavailable for comment after being taken to the training room.
Cowboys coach Jason Garrett agreed with the overturned call.
“I saw it like the three officials around the play saw it, not like the guy who was 50 yards away,” he said.
Lions coach Jim Caldwell was at a loss for words, it seemed.
“I’m not going to sit up here and act like that was the call that made a difference in the game. We still had our chances,” he said. “I don’t ever think it really comes down to one call but calls are crucial. There are games like this where everything’s so tight and everything’s on the line, the team’s playing so hard, to have something so questionable that occurs, it’s hard.”
No matter where you come down on the call, there’s no denying it was pivot point in momentum in the game.
“It’s a big play in the game. If we get those yards, then maybe we can score a touchdown and put the game out of reach,” Lions quarterback Matt Stafford said. “It’s their decision. I don’t have to understand it.”
Stefan Stevenson, 817-390-7760