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What if they hadn’t picked up the flag in Dallas?

You asked for it, now we play the hypothetical game

Wild Card Playoffs - Detroit Lions v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Sarah Glenn/Getty Images

Today’s Question of the Day put the “What If?” scenarios in your hand, asking Detroit Lions fans which one play in franchise history you’d re-do or omit. As I expected, a large majority of responses in the comment section and social media was to have the pass interference call stand in Dallas during the Lions’ 2014 Wild Card game against the Cowboys. By picking up the flag, the refs forced the Lions into a fourth down. The Lions punted and Dallas would go on to score the game-winning touchdown with 2:32 remaining.

So let’s go back in time and see what might have happened had the refs chosen to stay with the original call on the field.

The game

Had the pass interference call stood, the Lions would have retained the ball and been given a first down right around the Cowboys’ 29-yard line. So here’s the full situation the Lions would be facing:

First-and-10 from the Cowboys 29-yard-line, leading 20-17 with 8:18 remaining. The Lions have two timeouts, the Cowboys have all three.

At that point, the Lions are in really good shape to come away with their first playoff victory in two decades, but that win is far from guaranteed. According to Pro Football Reference’s “Win Probability Calculator” the Lions had a 90.7 percent chance of winning the game in that scenario.

That’s a pretty solid chance of winning, but remember that the Lions were struggling to score in the second half, while the Cowboys were starting to get rolling. Dallas didn’t punt in the entire second half, and had outscored Detroit 10-3 in the second half at that point.

If the Lions scored a touchdown on that drive, they would have been very close to putting the game away. If they settled for a field goal, a Cowboys touchdown would’ve still won them the game.

With so much time on the clock, it’s impossible to know if the picked up flag cost the Lions the game, but there’s no doubt it hindered their ability to win that fateful Sunday.

But let’s give Detroit the benefit of the doubt for hypothetical sake. What would have happened had the Lions won that game?

Divisional round

As the NFC’s six-seed, the Lions would have to play the highest-seeded team in the second round of the playoffs, which meant a trip to Seattle to face the eventual NFC Champion Seahawks.

This would have been an incredibly tough game for the Lions to win. In fact, no team has won in Seattle in the postseason since January 8, 2005. Seattle comfortably beat the Panthers in the second round 31-17 and would go on to outgun the Packers in the NFC Conference Championship in a thrilling overtime game. All to say, it’s tough to see the Lions advancing to the Conference Championship round had they beaten the Cowboys.

That said, Lions vs. Seahawks would have been an incredibly entertaining game. The Seahawks with the No. 1 defense (per DVOA) versus the Lions’ No. 3 defense. The offenses would have likely tipped the scales in Seattle’s favor. Ranked fifth in DVOA, the Seahawks scored the 10th most points in the league (24.6 PPG), while Detroit ranked 22nd in points (20.1) and just 19th in DVOA.


So what would have happened had the refs not picked up the flag? Well, the Lions would have likely defeated the Cowboys, but that result is not quite as certain as I think some remember. In fact, I was surprised to learn that there was still over eight minutes left in the game when that controversy hit. As we’ve seen from the Lions in recent memory, that’s a ton of time left on the clock and a lot can change.

And even if the Lions did go on to win that game, they likely weren’t making it out of the second round anyways.

Still, a victory in Dallas would’ve ended Detroit’s winless postseason streak. It would’ve ended the “Stafford can’t win big games on the road” narrative. And there’s always a chance that it would’ve motivated certain players like Ndamukong Suh and Calvin Johnson to stick around a little longer.

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