Arlington, Texas — The game will be remembered for the penalty that became a non-penalty, which is unfortunate because it was 60 minutes of dynamite football.
But in the end, the call went against the Lions, and they never recovered as the Cowboys emerged with a 24-20 victory Sunday in front of an audience of 91,410 at AT&T Stadium to advance to the divisional round of the playoffs.
And once again, the Lions are left licking their wounds as they remain winless in the postseason since 1991. Now, the Lions are tied with the Kansas City Chiefs for the longest postseason losing streak, both stretching eight games.
With the Lions clinging to a 20-17 lead midway through the fourth quarter, tight end Brandon Pettigrew seemingly drew a pass interference from linebacker Anthony Hitchens on third-and-1, a penalty that would've moved them into field-goal range.
"I thought it was a penalty," quarterback Matthew Stafford said.
Referee Pete Morelli even announced the penalty, but seconds later, said there was no infraction. The Lions had to punt, and Sam Martin's 10-yard shank helped set up the Cowboys' game-winning drive.
"Not good enough," Lions coach Jim Caldwell said of the explanation he received. "Not a good enough one. I'm going to leave it at that."
Morelli told the Dallas pool reporter that he didn't see the initial penalty — "I'm a hundred miles away" — but the head linesman overruled the flag from the back judge.
"We got information from another official from a different angle that thought the contact was minimal and didn't warrant pass interference," Morelli said. "He thought it was face-guarding.
"Face-guarding is not a foul. It is a penalty in college, but not in professional football."
The bigger problem than the result of the call, though, was the referees walked off what was about a 17-yard penalty and announced the pass interference before overturning it.
"It would've been smoother if we got together (before the call)," Morelli said.
The Lions seemed to do enough to win, but scored just three points in the second half as their offense and special teams, which were problematic all season, cost them. Because of the blunders on those two units and the late defensive lapses, the Lions would not blame the result on the non-penalty, though Caldwell admitted calls are crucial to the outcome of a game like this.
"I'm not going to sit up here and act like that was the call that made the difference in the game," he said. "We still had our chances."
Stafford finished 28 of 42 for 323 yards with one touchdown, one interception and a lost fumble on the final play of the game. He falls to 0-18 against teams that finished with a winning record, another knock to his legacy.
The Lions' defense was stout in the first half, and tackle Ndamukong Suh was a monster with two sacks and two tackles for loss. But eventually, DeMarco Murray (19 carries for 75 yards) and Tony Romo (19 of 31 for 293 yards) found a rhythm.
But as the Cowboys move on, the Lions are left to reflect on what had been an otherwise charmed first season under Caldwell.
"I do think we got the kind of effort out of our guys we'd like," Caldwell said. "I'm not satisfied, obviously, because of the fact that we didn't win at all, but I do think that one of the things we set out to do was come out and win and win right now and not have some sort of a two-year plan."
On the opening drive, the Lions forced a three-and-out, the first sign that their defense could slow the high-powered Cowboys offense.
Then, on the ensuing possession, the Lions looked like the team with the big-play offense. On the fourth play of the drive, Stafford hit Golden Tate across the middle and the receiver ran past the Dallas secondary for a 51-yard touchdown.
With 11:22 left in the first quarter, the Lions had a 7-0 lead and diminished any home-field advantage the Cowboys had.
The Lions defense forced another punt, but the Cowboys had the good fortune of a great bounce that rolled the ball all the way to the Detroit 1. Then, the Lions had arguably their best drive of the entire season.
In three plays, the Lions gained just 5 yards, but a running-into-the kicker penalty by Dallas on the punt gave them a first down. And the Lions took full advantage of the penalty.
After steadily moving down the field, primarily with runs and an 18-yard screen by Joique Bell, Reggie Bush scored on a sensational, 18-yard run.
The score gave the Lions a 14-0 lead with 1:57 yards and capped a well-executed 14-play, 99-yard drive.
Neither team did much of anything in the first two-thirds of the second quarter, though the Lions were lucky to avoid a turnover when Jeremy Ross jumped on his own muffed punt.
After a long stalemate, though, the Cowboys' offense finally broke through. On a third-and-12, Lions cornerback Cassius Vaughn fell while covering Terrance Williams, and the wide receiver turned a slant into a 76-yard touchdown as Dallas cut the Lions' lead to 14-7 with 1:37 left in the first half.
But the Lions moved quickly at the end of the half, and a 19-yard pass to Calvin Johnson put them in field-goal range. Matt Prater's 39-yard kicker barely curled inside the left upright, but it was enough to give the Lions a 17-7 halftime lead.
To start the second half, though, the Lions nearly threw away much of their first-half dominance. On the first play of the third quarter, Stafford had a pass tipped by Jeremy Mincey and intercepted by Kyle Wilber, giving the Cowboys the ball at the Detroit 19.
Once again, though, the Lions defense cleaned up for the offense as a third-down sack by Ziggy Ansah pushed the Cowboys back, and Dan Bailey missed a 41-yard field goal wide right.
The Lions drove to a field goal on the ensuing drive, a 37-yarder by Matt Prater to give them a 20-7 lead with 8:41 left in the third quarter. But after that, it was all Cowboys.
Dallas got the ball to Bryant on the ensuing drive for a 43-yard gain in which he broke a tackle attempt by DeAndre Levy. The Lions defense did well to keep the Cowboys out of the end zone on the first few plays, but Murray scored on a 1-yard run on fourth-and-goal, cutting the lead to 20-14 with 2:54 left in the third quarter.
With the Dallas crowd back into the game, the Lions had an ill-timed three-and-out, and the Cowboys turned it into another score.
On this Dallas drive, Cole Beasley caught a 12-yard pass over the middle, and Lions linebacker Tahir Whitehead hit him in the head to tack on 15 more yards. The Lions, though, kept the Cowboys out of the end zone thanks to two sacks by Suh, and Dallas settled for a 51-yard field goal to make it 20-17.
The Cowboys were within 3 points for the first time since the Lions' opening touchdown, and even though Ross' kickoff return only moved Detroit to the 5, the offense did manage to move the ball across midfield.
Unfortunately for the Lions, on third-and-1 at the Dallas 46, Pettigrew drew a pass interference on Hitchens, but the refs picked up the flag — even after Morelli initially called the foul.
Instead of a first down in field-goal range, the Lions had fourth-and-1, and even though the Lions left their offense on the field, they took a delay-of-game penalty before punting. Caldwell said he might've gone for it if the Lions were losing.
On the ensuing possession, Dallas converted a fourth-and-6 near midfield on a 21-yard pass to Jason Witten. The Lions gave them two more first downs via penalty. And on third-and-goal at the 8, Romo hit Williams for another touchdown to give the Cowboys their first lead, 24-20, with 2:32 remaining.
"I'm proud of the guys," Stafford said. "We fought our tails off all year, on a bunch of games along the way. Just didn't have enough in the tank to get it done today."