With St. Louis driving into Detroit territory late in a tie game, a broken play on second down saw Rams QB Sam Bradford scramble to the right side. With Detroit down to their final timeout, Bradford smartly slid rather than run out of bounds, to keep the clock going. There was 2:38 left, so the Rams could just run it down to the two-minute warning. Then they would call a running play, forcing the Lions to use their final timeout, and kick a field goal.
That's not what happened.
There was confusion about whether Bradford had slid inbounds, and line judge Shannon Eastin didn't immediately signal either way. The clock operator stopped the clock of his own accord.
Eastin eventually motioned to start the game clock again, but not until seven seconds had elapsed on the play clock. Now the Rams were forced to run a play before the two-minute warning could arrive, and Detroit would hang on to that last all-important TO.
You know the rest of the story. St. Louis kicked their field goal, the Lions got the ball back with 1:55 remaining, used that timeout at an opportune moment when Kevin Smith was brought down between the hashmarks, and would score the game-winning touchdown with just 10 ticks left. In an alternate universe, Detroit runs out of time earlier and is forced to attempt a game-tying field goal instead.
Rams coach Jeff Fisher sure noticed it, as he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:
"In essence, Detroit was granted an extra timeout I guess if you want to look at it from our perspective," Fisher said. "Because if it's done properly we go to the two-minute and have a third down. Of course, we're going to run it because we know we're in field goal range at that point.
"And then Coach Schwartz has a choice whether he lets it run down or he uses a timeout immediately. I would assume he'd use the timeout immediately, therefore he wouldn't have a timeout going into his two-minute drive, which he used his final one with 35 seconds left.
"So there was an error. I did report it to the league, and that's all I can do."
Who gets the blame for this, which arguably had more of an impact on the finish than even the phantom timeout in Seattle-Arizona? The NFL was quick to put it on the clock operator, who is a league hire and not a replacement official.
"It was a mistake by the clock operator," NFL senior vice president Greg Aiello told the Post-Dispatch via e-mail. "He stopped the clock incorrectly. The officials did not signal for it to stop."
But Eastin, on an important and questionable play near the sideline, probably should have signaled the runner down in bounds right away. And beyond that, it's in the referees' power to back up and correct a clock error like this one, which arguably should have been done considering what was on the line.