ARLINGTON, Texas - It wasn't Tony Romo who saved the Cowboys. Nor was it Dez Bryant or DeMarco Murray or even Terrance Williams, who caught the winning touchdown pass.
No. In what has come to be known as the Year of Pass Interference, when NFL officials have been instructed to make tighter calls in the secondary and flag even the slightest of infractions by defenders, a penalty that wasn't became the most critical and most controversial aspect of the Cowboys' 24-20 NFC wild-card victory over the Lions Sunday at AT&T Stadium.
Referee Pete Morelli announced a pass-interference penalty against Cowboys linebacker Anthony Hitchens, who was face-guarding tight end Brandon Pettigrew on a third-and-1 pass that wound up incomplete. That would have given the Lions a first down and put them close to field-goal range as they nursed a three-point lead with 8:25 left in the fourth quarter. But moments later, Morelli was back on his in-stadium microphone, announcing -- without any further explanation -- that there was no penalty on the play.
That forced the Lions to punt. Sam Martin shanked a 10-yard kick out of bounds that gave the Cowboys the ball at their 41 with a chance to take their first lead.
The reversal left the Lions angry and baffled.
"I thought it was ridiculous, to be honest,'' Pettigrew said. "He ran through me, pretty much, trying to get back to the ball. To me, it was obvious. To them, they made whatever call and picked up the flag.''
Stafford said he was told by the officials that Hitchens did not make contact with the receiver (replays showed that he clearly did).
"It's their decision,'' the Lions quarterback said. "I don't have to understand it.''
Morelli spoke to a pool reporter after the game.
"We got other information from another official from a different angle that thought the contact was minimal and didn't warrant pass interference,'' Morelli said. He added that back judge Lee Dyer threw the initial flag and head linesman Jerry Bergman argued that there should be no penalty.
Morelli noted that unlike college football, face-guarding is not a penalty in the NFL, and said he should have waited for all of the information before announcing the penalty. "It would have probably been smoother if we got together,'' he said.
Said Lions coach Jim Caldwell: "There are games like this where everything's so tight and everything's on the line, the team is playing so hard. To have something so questionable that occurs, it's hard.''
Hitchens did not speak to the media after the game, but even his teammates were surprised by the way that play unfolded.
"I've never seen that happen before, but I'm glad it happened tonight,'' Dallas safety Barry Church said. "We definitely got a break right there. I would have called it if I was the ref because he was shielding the offensive player.''
None of it would have mattered had the Cowboys not taken advantage of the momentum swing, and they nearly did not. It took a fourth-and-6 conversion from the Lions' 42 on a 21-yard pass from Romo to Jason Witten, two holding penalties against Lions defenders Don Carey and DeAndre Levy, and the 8-yard touchdown pass to Williams with 2:23 remaining to cash in.
The non-penalty overshadowed Dallas' first playoff win in five years and a stirring comeback from a 20-7 deficit, but it also was indicative of what this season has become for the Cowboys. They seem to be shedding the image of a team that crumbles in the face of adversity, flops on the biggest of stages and routinely finds ways to lose games.
Instead, the Cowboys fixed their leaky pass protection, which was a problem early on, and shored up their defense, which allowed a 51-yard touchdown pass and a 991/2-yard touchdown drive in the first quarter. Romo threw two touchdown passes and no interceptions. And they are moving on.
It was the Lions' eighth consecutive playoff defeat, the longest active streak in the NFL. Their only postseason win since 1957 came in January 1992 against Dallas.
The No. 3 Cowboys will face the No. 2 Packers in the divisional round Sunday, the first playoff game between the teams at Lambeau Field since the 1967 NFL Championship Game, which became remembered as the Ice Bowl.
This game against the Lions? It'll be remembered for a long time for something else.