ARLINGTON, Tex. — It was a gritty comeback, right? But even Cowboys safety Barry Church admitted it was all thanks to the refs.
This isn’t the way you want to erase your playoff nightmares, but it’s how the Dallas Cowboys came back to beat the Detroit Lions, 24-20, at AT&T Stadium on Sunday afternoon in the NFC wild-card playoffs and left big bad Ndamukong Suh in tears. They won after getting away with pass interference with 8:25 to play, after linebacker Anthony Hitchens was penalized . . . and then the penalty was inexplicably dismissed.
“We definitely got a break right there,” said Church. “I would have called it if I was the ref, because he was kind of shielding the offensive player. But I’m not the ref, I’m not out there. We definitely got a break on that one.”
The Lions led 20-17 when Detroit’s Matthew Stafford dropped back on third-and-1 from the Dallas 46, spied tight end Brandon Pettigrew deep and fired a long pass. As the ball fell incomplete, Hitchens seemed to be faceguarding Pettigrew, and a referee’s flag flew out, defensive pass interference was announced as the call, a call that frustrated the Cowboys so much that receiver Dez Bryant walked onto the field without a helmet to argue.
But then, after the penalty was walked off, after the Lions were suddenly in prime field position inside the Dallas 30, the refs changed the call.
“I thought it was ridiculous, to be honest,” Pettigrew added. “He ran through me pretty much, trying to get back to the ball. To me, it was obvious.”
And Hitchens? He had no thoughts, told by Dallas not to speak to the media, saying, “No media for me today” when approached, with Cowboys PR claiming it was because he needed to be treated for injury.
So thank the refs for sending Dallas to the divisional playoffs, where it will face the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field next weekend. Tony Romo and an offense that sleepwalked through the first half made their gift count, capping a 59-yard drive with an eight-yard TD pass to Terrance Williams that gave Dallas its first lead, 24-20, with 2:39 to play.
All because of the refs’ bizarre call. Asked about the play afterward, referee Pete Morelli said the flag was thrown for pass interference by the back judge Lee Dyer. Head linesman Jerry Bergman saw it differently.
“We got other information from another official from a different angle that thought the contact was minimal and didn’t warrant pass interference,” Morelli said. “He (Bergman) thought it was face-guarding.”
Face-guarding is not a penalty in the NFL, Morelli said, and the referee added that the contact was “minimal.” He admitted the situation should have been handled differently, and no foul should have been announced until the refs had spoken.
“Probably yes,” he said. “The information came and then the officials got together a little bit later . . . It would have probably been smoother if we got together.”
But they didn’t, and that left the Lions Motor City mad, so much so that a frustrated Suh stormed out of his postgame presser in tears, then returned and apologized.
“I’m speechless,” he said. “I feel like we played as hard as we could. We put it all out there.”
Lions coach Jim Caldwell wasn’t satisfied with the explanations from the refs.
“Not good enough,” he said. “I’m going to leave it at that.”
But it was just fine with Jerry Jones, who called it a “judgment call.”
“We didn’t necessarily think that was a pass interference call when they called it,” the Dallas owner said.
For 57 minutes, the Cowboys had been outplayed by feisty Detroit, manhandled by Suh and a Lions defensive line that sacked Romo six times, unable to contain Stafford and a Lion offense that moved the ball at will throughout the first half. Dallas couldn’t even cash in Detroit’s mistakes; Stafford opened the third quarter with an interception deep in his own territory, but Dan Bailey missed a 41-yard field goal after three fruitless Cowboy offensive plays.
So the Lions built a 20-7 third-quarter edge. And then this mysterious penalty transformed the game and made postseason choke artist Romo a hero, giving him his second postseason win in six games, possibly robbing the Lions of their first postseason win since 1992.
And even Church was ultimately thrilled with the result, even if it came in such bizarre fashion.
“I was just glad they picked (the flag) up,” he said. “I’ve never seen them pick up the marked-off penalty yardage. But they did that, and we definitely caught a break.”