Let's get this caveat out of the way, and (in spirit) amend it to all future discussions of the picked-up pass-interference flag that appeared so crucial in the Lions' loss to the Cowboys: the no-call didn't cost Detroit the game. Failing to hold a lead cost Detroit the game, as did turning the ball over three times, as did shanking a punt and failing to make Dallas drive any appreciable chunk of the field, as did letting Tony Romo lead a game-winning drive, complete with a fourth-down conversion, as did failing to answer in the 2:32 Matthew Stafford was given to go 80 yards. The Cowboys were better, and better later, and deserved to win the game, and if the Lions caught a strange and bad break on the controversial no-call, they had multiple chances to render it meaningless, and did not.
All that said—what a shitshow.
Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew and Cowboys linebacker Anthony Hitchens—not known for their pass-catching or pass-defending abilities, respectively, and seldom asked to demonstrate them, so bound to be as sloppy as anyone in this situation—were in near-constant contact. Hitchens tugged Pettigrew's jersey (most telling replay at 0:23 of the video above); Pettigrew put his hand on Hitchens's facemask (0:48); Hitchens restrained, then pushed off, Pettigrew's right shoulder (0:30).
And for good measure, Dez Bryant came well off the sideline to argue. By the letter of the law, that's four potentially flaggable calls. From referee Pete Morelli's postgame comments, none of them violated the spirit of the rulebook.
The back judge threw his flag for defensive pass interference. We got other information from another official from a different angle that thought the contact was minimal and didn't warrant pass interference. He thought it was faceguarding.
In a vacuum, I think that's entirely fair. The contact was certainly no worse than what you'll see on any number of unflagged plays (yet also worse than many flagged plays), and though Hitchens never once turned to play the ball, Stafford's placement—right into Hitchens's numbers—probably meant Pettigrew wouldn't have been able to haul it in anyway.
In Morelli's version, the system worked; officials communicated with each other to get the call right. But that's not how we saw it play out, and that's the failure on the field the gives the NFL and its officiating a deserved black eye today.
Per Morelli, back judge Lee Dyer threw the flag for defensive pass interference. But head linesman Jerry Bergman, who had "the better view," believed the contact was "minimal" and contradicted Dyer—though not in time, apparently. Why didn't Bergman alert Morelli before the referee announced the penalty to the stadium and the tens of millions of TV viewers, and spotted the ball? Why didn't side judge Allen Baynes, who was the closest to the fateful play, have any input?
These are inexcusable lapses, and they wouldn't be so bad if they weren't so common. Blame the byzantine rulebook, or blame the NFL's refusal to hire full-time officials, but penalty fuck-ups aren't even surprising anymore.
Especially in the postseason, which may be an indictment of the NFL's use of all-star officiating crews. Based on regular-season grades, the NFL throws together the best officials at each position, with zero regard for the chemistry and familiarity than can make crews better than the sum of their parts. Perhaps during the regular season, Morelli instinctively confers with his usual head linesman, Dana McKenzie, and saves everyone some grief, rather than rushing to announce the penalty based on the say-so of a back judge he's never worked with. It's probably time to keep officiating crews intact for the postseason, and reward those with the best overall grades.
There is no need to resort to conspiracy theories, not when simple incompetence will suffice. But the Lions, understandably frustrated, seemed to hint at darker motives.
"Doesn't this seem shady to you?" one Lions player texted. "It's just crazy."
"What do you expect when you come to Dallas?" Lions safety Glover Quin said. "Ain't gonna speculate that. But the league likes the story lines and headlines. I'm not getting into that."
If it has not gotten one already, the league will certainly want an explanation from Morelli of how his crew so badly screwed up a workaday call. For Morelli, a well-regarded referee, it may well cost him future postseason assignments. For Detroit, there can be no recourse, no consolation, not even if NFL head of officiating (and Cowboys party-bus rider) Dean Blandino issues one of his periodic "the call was wrong" statements. The Lions are out and done. At least there's plenty of blame to go around.