The Detroit Lions' dreams of their first playoff win since the 1991 season were crushed on Sunday by a combination of an awful second half and even worse officiating. The Lions were up 20-7 on the Dallas Cowboys at one point, but they were unable to score again the rest of the way. The officials were partly to blame for that, and they were also partly to blame for the Cowboys being in a position to score the go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter. In the end, the Lions couldn't overcome their own sloppiness or the incredible incompetence from the officials, and they lost 24-20 as a result.
The Lions really couldn't have gotten off to a better start in this game. The defense forced a three-and-out on Dallas' first drive, and the offense needed only four plays to find the end zone. Matthew Stafford hit Golden Tate in the middle of the field, and he ran by Barry Church and other Cowboys defenders for a 51-yard touchdown. Just like that, the Lions had a 7-0 lead.
After forcing another punt, the Lions took over at their own 1-yard line. It looked like Dallas was going to have good field position after the Lions went three-and-out, but a running into the punter penalty gave Detroit new life. The Lions kept the drive alive right after this with Stafford making a great play to scramble for 9 yards (he actually ran over a defender during the scramble), and things really started moving at this point. Stafford hit Calvin Johnson for 8 yards, and Joique Bell went 18 yards on a screen. A few plays after this, Reggie Bush bounced to the outside and went 18 yards for a touchdown run that was made possible by a great block by Tate.
Now up 14-0, the Lions kept the pressure on Dallas' offense by making life miserable for Tony Romo. Romo was sacked by Darryl Tapp on the Cowboys' next drive, and the ball actually came loose. The Cowboys recovered the fumble, but they later punted after James Ihedigbo recorded a sack of his own.
The Lions and Cowboys traded punts on the next few drives. The Cowboys took over after this stretch with the ball at their own 26 with 2:15 left to play. They had a third-down conversion on the third play of the drive called back by offensive pass interference on Terrance Williams, but Williams quickly made up for his error by going 76 yards for a touchdown on the very next play. Cassius Vaughn, who was filling in for an injured Rashean Mathis, fell down in coverage, leading to the touchdown.
The Lions responded with a nice drive to close out the first half. They got all the way down to the Dallas 21 and were able to take a shot at the end zone. This shot at the end zone nearly led to an interception, but the Cowboys were unable to come up with the bad pass from Stafford. As a result, the Lions simply kicked a field goal, and Matt Prater barely made the attempt from 39 yards out. A shaky snap and an uncomfortable-looking hold made things more difficult than they needed to be, but the Lions made the kick to take a 17-7 lead at halftime.
The Lions actually opened up the second half with the ball, but they quickly turned it over to Dallas. On the opening play of the third quarter, Stafford had a pass tipped up and intercepted. This gave the Cowboys the ball at the Detroit 19, and they managed to set up third-and-1 at the 10-yard line. Amazingly, they finished the drive at the 23-yard line after Ziggy Ansah sacked Romo, and Dan Bailey, who is known for being an extremely accurate kicker, pushed the ensuing field goal attempt from 41 yards out wide right. After all that, the Cowboys added zero points and the Lions actually gained yards.
After catching a huge break thanks to the defense, the offense got things back on track. Stafford led the Lions into Dallas territory with a big 28-yard pass to Johnson, and he nearly found Tate in the end zone a few plays later. Tate unfortunately got his feet tangled up with a Cowboys defender and went down, and the Lions ended up settling for a 37-yard field goal. Prater connected, giving the Lions a 20-7 lead.
In desperate need of points, the Cowboys finally got back on track offensively on their next drive. They quickly drove to midfield, and the Lions actually had a great chance to force a punt on third-and-10. That great chance came in the form of DeAndre Levy being in position to take down Dez Bryant short of the first-down line. Unfortunately for the Lions, Levy missed the tackle, and Bryant went 43 yards to set up first-and-goal. DeMarco Murray scored a touchdown on the very next play, but a holding penalty nullified it. Four plays after that, on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, Murray scored again, this time without any flags being thrown.
The Lions responded with an ugly three-and-out, and the Cowboys once again quickly drove into Lions territory as the fourth quarter began. Actually, they got all the way down to the Detroit 18, at which point Ndamukong Suh took over the game. He recorded sacks on back-to-back plays, forcing the Cowboys to kick a 51-yard field goal. Bailey made the kick this time around, cutting the Lions' lead down to 20-17.
The next drive completely altered the outlook of this game thanks to the officials. The Lions overcame an awful kick return by Jeremy Ross that left them at their own 5-yard line, and they eventually had third-and-1 from the Dallas 46. Stafford tried to find Brandon Pettigrew, but he was clearly interfered with. A flag was thrown, and a penalty was announced. Suddenly, however, another announcement was made: the flag was picked up. Instead of having an automatic first down, the Lions were faced with fourth-and-1 with no explanation about what happened. They tried to draw Dallas offside but instead punted after taking a delay of game. To make matters worse, Sam Martin completely shanked the punt. It went 10 yards, giving the Cowboys the ball at their own 41.
Things continued to go downhill for the Lions on the next possession. First, the Cowboys moved the chains on fourth-and-6 from the Detroit 42. A stop could have put the Cowboys away for good, but Jason Witten went for 21 yards instead. Shortly after this, the Lions did come up with a stop on third-and-7, but a holding penalty on Levy gave Dallas a fresh set of downs. On the next sequence of plays, the Lions had another opportunity to get off the field and hold Dallas to a field goal, but Romo found Williams for an 8-yard touchdown. It's worth noting that there were several uncalled holds on Dallas during this stretch, but all of those judgment calls went against Detroit on this drive.
With 2:32 to go in the fourth quarter, the Lions needed some of Stafford's comeback magic against Dallas yet again. Early in the drive, it seemed like there was some magic on the Lions' side considering Stafford fumbled the ball away to the Cowboys on a sack and Dallas promptly gave it right back to Detroit on the return. Garrett Reynolds, who was forced into action by an injury to Travis Swanson, forced the potential season-saving fumble, and Riley Reiff fell on it.
It seems that the Lions used up all of their comeback magic on that play, because there wasn't any left when Stafford was strip-sacked on fourth down later in the drive. This time, the Lions were at the Dallas 42-yard line, and they simply needed 3 yards to move the chains and keep hopes of a comeback alive. Instead, though, Stafford was sacked, and this time the Cowboys did not give away the fumble. Instead, they fell on it, sealing their 24-20 victory and ending the Lions' season in the process.
It's going to take a long, long time to get over this loss. The Lions looked like they were on their way to their first playoff win since the 1991 season, and they had plenty of opportunities to put this game out of reach, even after the officiating turned on them. However, they ultimately came up short, and any hopes of them finally ending their playoff losing streak will have to be put in storage for at least another year.