A proper inventory of what did and didn't go in Detroit's favor in Sunday's playoff game against the Cowboys would include, at minimum, the NFL ruling that "first-time offender" Ndamukong Suh was eligible to suit up; a hot start followed by scoring just six points over the final three quarters (forcing run-pass splits to drop from 50-50 in the first quarter to 24-76 over the remainder of the game); a decision to try to force the Cowboys offsides after the controversial call instead of simply going for it on fourth-and-1 (a down-and-distance you should nearly always attempt); surrendering two crucial fourth-downs to the Cowboys; and Matt Stafford going just 3-for-10 on passes of 10 or more yards down the field after that first 51-yard bomb. It would also, of course, include referee Pete Morelli picking up a flag for pass interference—one of four possible penalties on the play—to give the ball back to Dallas for what would be the winning drive. All of which is to say, a lot of things that conspired to send Detroit home. But—as much as it's ever true of any one play or call—it was also just the one thing.
(As usual, Brian Burke of Advanced Football Analytics was good enough to send us a rundown on the most plays that had most impact this week as sorted by Win Probability, which you can find below. But we're going off-script in the run-up, since box scores and play-by-plays are an unreliable source for counterfactuals.)
At the time of the pass, despite having donked off much of their advantage all on their own after ceding leads of 14-0 early and 20-7 late, the Lions were still sitting comfortably ahead, with a win probability of 79 percent. It dropped to 69 percent after the flag was picked up, and then again to 58 percent after Sam Martin, convenient goat, sent a punt 10 yards. Detroit's WP crawled back up when it forced a fourth-and-6 from their own 42, but Tony Romo converted and swagged the rest of the way down the field for a touchdown. Here's the chart from AFA:
The odds were still on Detroit's side, barely, after the call, but once the Cowboys converted that fourth down there was only doom left for the Lions, and the probability chart reacted accordingly. But this only shows us the linear progression of events as they occurred, not the implied odds of how things might have broken differently. Normally, this doesn't do much good, but in this case, the play had already happened and the penalty was announced before being snatched back, so chasing a few stray rabbits isn't a total waste of time.
Here are a few different permutations, run through the AFA Win Probability calculator:
Flag not picked up: Detroit ball, first-and-10, Dallas 28-yard line, 8:18 remaining: 85 percent Detroit Win Probability
Flag picked up (punt to Dallas 20): Dallas ball, first-and-10, Dallas 20-yard line, 8:10 remaining, 67 percent Detroit Win Probability
Flag picked up (10-yard punt): Dallas ball, first-and-10, Dallas 41-yard line, 8:10 remaining, 58 percent Detroit Win Probability
Flag not picked up (Detroit scores field goal in ~1:30): Dallas ball, first-and-10, Dallas 25-yard line, 6:30 remaining, 82 percent Detroit Win Probability
Flag not picked up (Detroit scores touchdown in ~2:00): Dallas ball, first-and-10, Dallas 25-yard line, 6:30 remaining, 91 percent Detroit Win Probability
If you'll allow for the rhetorical ploy of considering the play over after the call was announced and considering the reversal a discrete event in the game, picking up the flag results in a loss of 16 percentage points, going from first-and-10 on the Dallas 28 to the fourth down Detroit was forced into, before the punt. This is the same change in WP (-16 points) that occurred when Ted Ginn Jr. coughed up a fumble on a kickoff return that was recovered at his own 3-yard line, a play that changed a conceivably winnable game to one that one that would take an outrageous turn of fortune.
And then, if you include Martin's 10-yard punt as part of the cascade of dumbasssery set in motion by Morelli's reversal (an admitted thumb on the scale, but certainly the punt was affected in some way, and would not have happened if the call stood), you're looking at a 27 percentage point drop in WP. This is the sort of swing usually reserved for fourth-quarter interceptions or goofy Giants fumbles returned for touchdowns and everything short of game-winners—you know, the big fat ugly ones, like the Brady-to-Welker drop in the 2012 Super Bowl that cost the Pats 30 WP percentage points (95 percent if caught; 65 percent with a drop).
You hear a lot of We had plenty of chances to win and the like after this kind of game, and that's all true enough. Maybe if Detroit's defense hadn't allowed 16.3 yards per pass on third and fourth down attempts, things would have been different. But as much as a singular play like a Beastmode run or a Russell Wilson scramble can upset the determined facts of a game, a call or non-call can do the same.
Here are the very good and very bad plays from the Wild Card round:
|(2:39) (Shotgun) 9-T.Romo pass short middle to 83-T.Williams for 8 yards TOUCHDOWN [94-E.Ansah]. Pass was caught middle back of the end zone.||DAL||DET||3||8||8||0.23||2.51||2:39||4|
|(4:28) (Shotgun) 9-T.Romo pass short middle to 88-D.Bryant to DET 13 for 3 yards (31-R.Mathis).||DAL||DET||1||10||16||0.19||-0.05||4:28||4|
|(6:00) (Shotgun) 9-T.Romo pass short middle to 82-J.Witten to DET 21 for 21 yards (42-I.Abdul-Quddus; 32-J.Ihedigbo). Pass complete on a "curl" route.||DAL||DET||4||6||42||0.19||3.84||6:00||4|
|(5:50) (Shotgun) 1-C.Newton pass short right to 43-F.Whittaker for 39 yards TOUCHDOWN.||CAR||ARZ||1||10||39||0.18||3.58||20:50||3|
|9-G.Gano kicks 73 yards from CAR 35 to ARZ -8. 19-T.Ginn to ARZ 8 for 16 yards (23-M.White). FUMBLES (23-M.White) RECOVERED by CAR-52-K.Reddick at ARZ 3. 52-K.Reddick to ARZ 3 for no gain (56-G.Carson).||CAR||ARZ||99||0||70||0.16||0||20:50||3|
|(11:34) 9-M.Stafford pass deep middle to 15-G.Tate for 51 yards TOUCHDOWN. Pass complete on a "slant" pattern.||DET||DAL||2||10||51||0.16||4.89||56:34:00||1|
|(1:50) (Shotgun) 9-T.Romo pass short middle to 83-T.Williams for 76 yards TOUCHDOWN. Pass complete on a "slant" pattern.||DAL||DET||3||12||76||0.14||6.8||31:50:00||2|
|(1:00) (Shotgun) 9-M.Stafford sacked at DET 49 for -9 yards (90-D.Lawrence). FUMBLES (90-D.Lawrence) [90-D.Lawrence] RECOVERED by DAL-90-D.Lawrence at DET 47. 90-D.Lawrence to DET 47 for no gain (71-R.Reiff).||DET||DAL||4||3||42||-0.18||-2.4||1:00||4|
|(5:05) (Shotgun) 1-C.Newton pass short left intended for 82-J.Cotchery INTERCEPTED by 31-A.Cromartie at ARZ 33. 31-A.Cromartie pushed ob at CAR 17 for 50 yards (1-C.Newton).||CAR||ARZ||3||13||37||-0.18||-5.64||35:05:00||2|
|(11:53) 14-R.Lindley pass short right intended for 11-L.Fitzgerald INTERCEPTED by 59-L.Kuechly at CAR 4. 59-L.Kuechly to CAR 5 for 1 yard (11-L.Fitzgerald).||ARZ||CAR||1||8||8||-0.12||-4.54||11:53||4|
|(6:44) (Shotgun) 9-T.Romo pass short middle to 29-D.Murray to DET 42 for 2 yards (94-E.Ansah).||DAL||DET||3||8||44||-0.12||-1.16||6:44||4|
|(15:00) 9-M.Stafford pass short middle intended for 15-G.Tate INTERCEPTED by 51-K.Wilber (92-J.Mincey) at DET 24. 51-K.Wilber to DET 19 for 5 yards (15-G.Tate). Pass deflected at the line of scrimmage by Mincey.||DET||DAL||1||10||80||-0.12||-4.48||30:00:00||3|
|(8:18) (Punt formation) 6-S.Martin punts 10 yards to DAL 41 Center-48-D.Muhlbach out of bounds.||DET||DAL||4||6||51||-0.11||-1.17||8:18||4|
|(13:33) (Shotgun) 9-T.Romo sacked at DET 23 for -13 yards (94-E.Ansah).||DAL||DET||3||1||10||-0.11||-2.83||28:33:00||3|
Photo via Getty