Overturned penalty not the only big call Cowboys needed to beat Lions

ARLINGTON, Texas –€“ The official play-by-play sheet describes it simply as "M. Stafford pass incomplete deep left to B. Pettigrew (A. Hitchens)."

Everyone who witnessed it knows it was much more.

Cowboys linebacker Anthony Hitchens was flagged for defensive pass interference against Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew. The call came on third and one as the Lions, leading 20-17, were trying to hold off a Cowboys rally with 8:25 left in Sunday’s Wild Card playoff game.

Then, with little explanation from the officials, the call was reversed. The flag was picked up and the Lions ultimately punted.

The Cowboys then drove for the winning touchdown to claim a 24-21 victory.

"I thought it was ridiculous, to be honest," Pettigrew said. "He (Hitchens) ran through me, pretty much, trying to get back to the ball. To me, it was obvious. To them, they made whatever call and picked up the flag. I don’t know what to say about that."

From a Cowboys’ perspective, led by receiver Dez Bryant who charged onto the field helmetless to argue, there wasn’t enough there to warrant a flag. If anything, Pettigrew also initiated contact with Hitchens.

"I saw it like the three officials around the play saw it, not like the guy who was 50 yards away," Garrett said.

That matches the official explanation given by referee Pete Morelli to a pool reporter.

"The back judge (Lee Dyer) threw his flag for defensive pass interference," Morelli said. "We got other information from another official (head linesman Jerry Bergman) from a different angle that thought the contact was minimal and didn’t warrant pass interference. He thought it was face-guarding."

Face-guarding is a penalty in college, but not the NFL.

Lions coach Jim Caldwell said the explanation given to him by the officials was, "Not good enough. I’m going to leave it at that."

It didn’t help the Lions that after the pass interference call was overturned, Lions punter Sam Martin shanked one 10 yards to set the Cowboys up at the their 41.

"I’m not going to sit up here and and act like that was the call that made a difference in the game," Caldwell said. "We still had our chances."

But oh, they will be howling about that one in Detroit for years to come. And Vikings fans of a certain age swear that Drew Pearson pushed off on the Hail Mary.

The pass interference reversal will be the most talked-about moment, but it may not have been even the biggest call of the game.

That honor might just go to Cowboys coach Jason Garrett’s decision to go for it on fourth and six on the game-winning drive.

The Cowboys were at the Detroit 42 with six minutes left. The safe move is to punt the ball and use your two timeouts to get the ball back in time for another try.

"What kept going through my mind was, when you get the chance to go play at the Masters, you don’t lay up," Garrett said. "You go after it a little bit."

Garrett went after it, and Tony Romo found Jason Witten wide open over the middle for a 21-yard gain.

"That was a winning call," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. "You do that to win. That was a game-changing call in my opinion."

And as much as Detroit fans have a right to gripe about the pass interference call being overturned, they received a huge gift of their own a few plays later.

With Detroit making a final push to reclaim the lead, Matthew Stafford was sacked and fumbled. Dallas rookie DeMarcus Lawrence picked up the loose ball and started to run with it, only to fumble it back to the Lions.

If Lawrence simply falls on the ball with two minutes left, the game’s over. Instead, the Lions got new life, including a first down on the double change of possession.

Lawrence thought he would get benched for the blunder.

"My emotions were so high at the time when I picked the ball up," Lawrence said. "I was like, man, God please help me because I need this play right now. I can’t let my teammates down. Coach Leon Lett gave me another chance to go out there."

Yes, that Leon Lett. The one infamous in Cowboys history for two blunders, one that cost them a Thanksgiving game against the Dolphins. He’s now a defensive line coach for the team.

A minute later, Lawrence sacked Stafford and stripped him of the ball. This time, Lawrence covered up the prized possession and the Cowboys are off to Green Bay next week.

"It’s just a big lesson learned," Lawrence said. "Two minutes on the clock, you have stay down."

It was a game of extra chances for the Cowboys, who spotted the Lions a 14-0 lead in the first quarter. Whether it was an overturned penalty or a huge fourth down call, they were good enough to take advantage of them.

Follow Keith Whitmire on Twitter: @Keith_Whitmire

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