Cowboys finally win close game that matters — with some help from Lions and refs
ARLINGTON, Texas — The Detroit Lions will bitterly remember Sunday for shoddy officiating.
The Dallas Cowboys will fondly recall it for their impressive second-half display of overcoming adversity.
Two different points of view from two franchises at different places in the NFL pecking order.
The Lions are mired in the same rut the Cowboys once were – unable to win when it mattered most.
That was reflected in Dallas’ wild, 24-20, first-round playoff victory at AT&T Stadium.
Detroit has every reason to blame referee Pete Morelli and his crew for yet another NFL officiating embarrassment that proved costly to the Lions and the league’s image. The Lions were holding onto a 20-17 lead early in the fourth quarter, facing a third-and-one from the Cowboys’ 46-yard line.
Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford tried to connect with tight end Brandon Pettigrew, who was being shielded by Cowboys rookie linebacker Anthony Hitchens. There was enough physical contact between Pettigrew and Hitchens that a flag was thrown for pass interference.
Wide receiver Dez Bryant then ran onto the field without his helmet to protest, which could have drawn another penalty at the referee’s discretion.
Neither would be called or enforced.
Morelli announced that the flag on Hitchens would be picked up without offering a sufficient explanation over the public address system. Bryant wasn’t whistled for his infraction. And the Lions ended up having to punt at a critical time in the game.
To make matters worse for Detroit, punter Sam Martin delivered a 10-yard shank.
In an NFL pool report, Morelli acknowledged he "probably" shouldn’t have announced the initial penalty on Hitchens before consulting with more of his crew members. Head linesman Jerry Bergman convinced Morelli after the fact that Hitchens was only face-guarding, which is illegal in college football but not the NFL.
"The back judge (Lee Dyer) threw his flag," 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."
Such reasoning will never be good enough for the Lions.
"It’s a big play in the game," Stafford said. "If we get those yards, then maybe we can score a touchdown and put the game out of reach."
Yet amid all the outrage from Lions coaches, players, fans and employees — including the one who expressed his frustration by damaging property in the Cowboys press box afterward — Stafford put the call into proper perspective.
"We made a lot of plays along the way here and there that hurt us," he said. "If we just execute a little better in all phases, we come away with a win."
That’s why Detroit’s season is over and the Cowboys have advanced to play Green Bay on Sunday. The 2014 Cowboys have learned to avoid those types of pitfalls and maintain their composure even under the most challenging of circumstances, which was a problem for previous Dallas squads.
"I know that we won’t quit. I knew that going in," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones gushed. "But I hadn’t seen them in quite these trying circumstances with this much at stake. They still didn’t quit."
The Cowboys’ resiliency in this comeback was embodied by DeMarcus Lawrence. The rookie defensive end recovered a Stafford fumble on an Anthony Spencer sack-and-strip just before the two-minute warning, but made the mistake of trying to run with it rather than simply fall down and allow Dallas to drain the clock. Lawrence lost the football and Detroit left tackle Riley Reiff recovered to give the Lions a first down and new lease on life.
"I’ve just got to stay down," Lawrence said. "The emotion was too high for me at that moment."
The specter of Leon Lett’s infamous Thanksgiving Day fumble didn’t just hover in the air before 91,410 fans at jam-packed AT&T Stadium. Lett himself saw it first-hand from the sideline since he’s one of Lawrence’s position coaches.
A former Cowboys defensive lineman himself, Lett never got to redeem himself for costing the Cowboys a 1993 victory against Miami. Lawrence did for his error.
On fourth-and-three from the Cowboys’ 42, Lawrence charged past Reiff to hit Stafford and recover the subsequent fumble with 54 seconds left.
"I had to go back out there and make something happen," said Lawrence, who plans to put the football from his first career sack in a trophy case. "The team needed me to make a play. I missed an opportunity for us to seal the deal."
An 8-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Tony Romo to wide receiver Terrance Williams with 2:39 remaining proved the game-winner. Rebounding from a rough first half for his entire unit, Romo hit Jason Witten for a first down on a fourth-and-six to keep that scoring drive alive (as did two subsequent Lions defensive penalties inside the red zone that gave Dallas first downs that fueled Detroit’s anger over the officiating).
Conversely, Detroit’s offense gradually lost steam from the moment Stafford opened the second half with an interception. The Cowboys gradually whittled away deficits of 14-0 and 20-7.
"We’ve been doing that all year," Cowboys safety Barry Church said. "A couple of teams come out early and punch us in the mouth, but we’ve learned we have a strong chin. We are able to take that punch and keep rolling."
Thus, the Cowboys are living up to their "#finishthefight" motto, whereas the Lions still have a glass jaw.
Nobody can relate more to Detroit’s frustration from being unable to get over the hump than Dallas. The Lions haven’t won a playoff game since 1991. The Cowboys had only one postseason victory in 18 seasons before Sunday. Stafford is now 0-18 as a starter in games against teams that finished the regular season with a winning record.
Romo has spent most of his 12-year career facing criticism about either not being able to reach the playoffs or his previous 1-3 record when he did get that far.
Romo, though, said "there is no sense of relief" from Dallas’ first postseason victory since the 2009 season.
"Our aspirations weren’t just winning the division, as great as that was, and it’s not just winning a playoff game," he said. "There are bigger things."
Things like the Super Bowl, a game the Lions have never reached and can now only dream about once again thanks to Morelli — and their own shortcomings.