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Breaking down the call: Were the Lions bailed out by the refs?

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A breakdown of two controversial plays that ended up in the Detroit Lions' favor on Sunday.

Greg Shamus

When a game like Sunday's unbelievable comeback occurs, it is not uncommon for a few key penalties to become huge game-changing moments in retrospect. The Detroit Lions' game against the New Orleans Saints was no exception. Many Saints fans were crying foul over several calls/non-calls in the game. It's easy to brush those complaints off as sour grapes, but since the Lions have been on that side of the coin plenty of times in the past, why not look to see if Saints fans have legitimate beef?

At the apex of the controversy is the fourth down pass to Reggie Bush, which was flagged for pass interference. This gave the Lions a fresh set of downs, which they eventually used to score the game-winning touchdown. This was an extremely subjective call, and it was very hard to conclude whether it was pass interference. Canal Street Chronicles has a nice breakdown of the play, and even the Saints fans in the comments section are split on what they think. Because I don't have a strong opinion either way, and the rulebook doesn't provide any clarity one way or the other, I'm just going to leave that one open for debate.

Instead, let's look at a couple of other plays that have been overlooked, but had just as big of an impact on the game.

Late in the first half, the Lions were struggling to get anything going on offense. Finally having the ball on the Saints' side of the field, Matthew Stafford heaved a pass downfield to Golden Tate that fell incomplete. However, the Saints were called for pass interference on the play, and the Lions gained 31 yards and a first-and-goal opportunity. Was it the right call?

tate PI

At first glance it appears the defender grabs on to Tate's right arm and hauls him down, a clear foul. However, that is not exactly what happens on this play.

Yes, the defender holds on to Tate's arm briefly, but he clearly lets go before Tate tumbles to the ground. The reason Tate falls is because his feet get tangled up with the defender:

tate feet

You can clearly see both players' left feet get tangled, causing them both to fall to the floor. TO THE RULEBOOK! The rulebook lists the following as a legal act:

Inadvertent tangling of feet when both players are playing the ball or neither player is playing the ball.

This is a clear and cut case of a legal act from the defensive player. As for the hand grab? The rulebook also considers this as legal:

Laying a hand on an opponent that does not restrict him in an attempt to make a play on the ball.

This is where things get a little gray. Whether or not the arm-hold restricts Tate is debatable. However, it doesn't appear to slow down Tate at all, and it doesn't prevent him from trying to catch the ball, as the incidental contact causes him to fall before the ball even arrives.

You could make an argument for illegal contact on the defender, but that is not a lot of contact, and a five-yard penalty is much different than a 31-yard penalty.

Conclusion: This was not pass interference. The incidental contact -- clearly legal in the rulebook -- was the cause for Tate's inability to make a play on the ball.

Later in the game, we saw an irate Drew Brees after he basically spiked the ball on a third down play. Why was he mad? Watch the running back:

defensive holding

Nick Fairley grabs the back and throws him to the ground before Brees is able to throw the screen to him. That certainly looks like a penalty, but was it?

It is defensive holding if a player grasps an eligible offensive player (or his jersey) with his hands, or extends an arm or arms to cut off or encircle him

Yes. Yes it was. Oftentimes on a screen pass, you'll see the running back hauled down before the pass is thrown, but there won't be a penalty called. This is because there is a special clause for plays like that:

Any offensive player who pretends to possess the ball, and/or one to whom a teammate pretends to give the ball, may be tackled providing he is crossing his scrimmage line between the offensive tackles of a normal tight offensive line.

In other words, if there is play-action on the play, you are allowed to tackle the running back, even if he will be the intended receiver. Unfortunately, there was no fake to the running back, so Fairley's tackle was clearly illegal. Had the foul been called, the Saints would have had a first down and another chance to score a touchdown to put the game away for good.

Conclusion: The refs missed a pivotal holding call against Nick Fairley. A foul should have been called and the Saints should have had the ball first-and-10 at the Lions' 13-yard line.

Do the Saints win the game if both of these calls go in their favor? Maybe. It's impossible to know for sure. But just know that when Saints fans are complaining about the refs, they aren't completely wrong.