Howard Fendrich, ASSOCIATED PRESS
ARLINGTON, Tx. (AP)—Officiating prompted conversation and consternation all season in the NFL, so why should the playoffs — particularly the pass interference call that was, then suddenly wasn’t, in the Cowboys’ wild-card win over the Lions — be any different?
There’s actually something ironic about such a ruckus raised by what wound up being a no-call, given that the competition committee’s extra emphasis on, and rewording of, rules governing defensive-backfield play led to an increase in flags.
There was one more penalty per game this season than a year ago and the highest rate since 2005, according to STATS. The numbers are skyrocketing in the playoffs: The first four games averaged 13.5 calls, compared to 7.8 from wild-card weekend last season, STATS said.
In the NFC, Dallas beat Detroit 24-20, and Carolina eliminated Arizona 27-16. In the AFC, Indianapolis defeated Cincinnati 26-10, and Baltimore beat Pittsburgh 30-17.
On Sunday in Dallas, Detroit was leading 20-17 and facing third-and-1 with about 8 1/2 minutes left in the fourth quarter, when Cowboys linebacker Anthony Hitchens was flagged while covering Brandon Pettigrew.
“Pass interference,” referee Pete Morelli intoned. “Automatic first down.”
About 15 seconds later, and with no explanation, Morelli announced, “There is no foul on the play.”
On Fox’s broadcast, announcer Joe Buck said: “Boy, that was late.” Then, addressing former head of NFL officiating Mike Pereira, Buck asked, “You ever seen that call picked up that late?”
Pereira replied, “Not at all.” Later, Pereira said: “I still strongly believe that was not a good pickup of a flag.”
Afterward, Morelli said the back judge threw a flag, prompting the initial announcement, and the change came because the head linesman then said there wasn’t enough contact to warrant a penalty.
Another tidbit: Dallas’ Dez Bryant was not penalized for leaving the sideline without a helmet to approach an official and dispute the initial call.
When play resumed, the Lions shanked a punt. Then they were whistled twice for defensive penalties, gave up a 21-yard pass from Tony Romo to Jason Witten on fourth-and-6, and let Dallas score the go-ahead TD.
“I don’t ever think it comes down to one call,” Detroit coach Jim Caldwell said, “but calls are crucial during games like this.”
In case you missed it, here are other top topics after the NFL’s wild-card weekend:
AFC: Baltimore is at New England on Saturday; Indianapolis is at Denver on Sunday. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco might only have one Super Bowl trophy to New England counterpart Tom Brady’s three, but Flacco has won at Foxborough twice in the playoffs. Plus, check out Flacco’s numbers over his past five postseason games: 13 TDs, zero interceptions. One story line will dominate the other game: Denver QB Peyton Manning against the team he led to a Super Bowl championship and the guy who replaced him in Indy, Andrew Luck. Luck was superb against the Bengals, going 31 of 44 for 376 yards, one touchdown and zero interceptions.
NFC: Carolina is at the reigning Super Bowl champion Seahawks on Saturday; Dallas is at Green Bay on Sunday. Two terrific defenses will meet in Seattle, while the offenses will get attention in the Cowboys’ first postseason game at the Packers since the 1967 Ice Bowl. Romo and Dallas went 8-0 on the road in the regular season; Packers QB Aaron Rodgers hasn’t thrown an interception at home since December 2012.
KEY INJURIES: Absences were crucial to three of the four wild-card games. Arizona used third-string quarterback Ryan Lindley and produced 78 yards, the fewest in NFL postseason history; Pittsburgh was without Le’Veon Bell and its running backs gained only 43 yards; Cincinnati sorely missed its top two pass-catchers, A.J. Green and Jermaine Gresham.
CHRISTIE’S A COWBOYS FAN: Whether whooping it up in celebration alongside Cowboys owner Jerry Jones during the game or bouncing along toward the home locker room afterward, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie once again got plenty of face time while showing off his fandom for America’s Team. Hmmmm, how many electoral votes is Texas worth in a presidential election?
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