An otherwise competitive game was completely overshadowed by a historically awful officiating moment. Instead of talking about a playoff-caliber matchup, the discussion will instead center on Detroit and a new chapter in their string of officiating blunders.
No point in holding back, let’s jump into the takeaways, starting with the elephant in the room.
Jobbed in Dallas yet again
The Lions had pulled off the miracle comeback and a Taylor Decker two-point reception to take the lead, but the officials were having none of that.
Decker was penalized for not reporting as eligible on the play, despite the replay showing Decker talking to an official prior to the play:
so who didn’t report then? pic.twitter.com/5U1sB2kLXk— Nick Baumgardner (@nickbaumgardner) December 31, 2023
Dan Campbell was rightfully furious. You can argue that the Lions should have kicked the extra point on the ensuing attempts, but that should not detract from the Lions yet again getting hosed by officiating in a primetime game against the Cowboys. Just when you thought that the picked-up pass interference penalty in the 2014 playoffs couldn’t be topped, the officials pulled out a new trick.
I can’t wait for another half-assed and meaningless apology (if we even get one).
Ben Johnson is not earning his head coaching job
While the defense stepped up against a playoff-caliber opponent, the same could not be said about the offense. The key culprit on the day was offensive coordinator Ben Johnson. Facing a ferocious Cowboys front seven, the Lions were too often drawing up slow-developing plays. Naturally, these were often met with a stop in the backfield. In particular, the third down play calling was troubling. Creativity has been the name of Johnson’s game, but it backfired against the Cowboys. Too often the Lions got cute on third down, and this is perhaps a side effect of their fourth down aggressiveness.
The Lions have an elite offense when firing on all cylinders, but an off night like tonight is something that cannot happen come playoff time.
Defense shows its teeth
With the Lions already clinching a playoff berth, this game could be viewed as a tune-up for the team. The defense was faced with the tough task of slowing the Cowboys offense, and they were largely successful. Dallas had averaged over 30 points per game, but Aaron Glenn’s squad managed to hold them to just 20 points. If Derrick Barnes managed to wrap up Dak Prescott on the 92-yard touchdown pass, that total is even lower.
In the pregame broadcast, it was mentioned that the Lions needed Aidan Hutchinson to play like Micah Parsons. He certainly delivered. Hutchinson had a three-sack night, all of which were hard-fought against a tough Cowboys offensive line. He also notched himself four tackles for loss. He and his defensive linemates were stellar in run defense, holding the Cowboys to just
Improvements are still needed—I’ll get to those later—but this was an overall positive showing for the Lions defense.
Cam Sutton gets cooked
For as good as the defense was, Cam Sutton was a notable outlier. Not to beat a dead horse, but Sutton’s play of late has him in the realm of CB2 instead of shutdown corner. Against the Cowboys, however, the only realm he was in was the shadow realm, for CeeDee Lamb banished the veteran corner. Lamb exploded for 227 receiving yards, and while 92 of those were on a play that wasn’t Sutton’s fault, it was still a rough outing for him. He was allowing his man to get open frequently. Traction seemed like a struggle for Sutton in particular, slipping on a few plays—this also reared its head last week against the Minnesota Vikings on a touchdown grab.
The Good, the Bad, and the Goff
Jared Goff deserves a ton of credit for keeping this game as close as it was, but he is also a reason for the deficit in the first place.
The Cowboys brought pressure on nearly every down, with every lineman save Penei Sewell having a rough outing. Despite frequently having a defender in his face, Goff did a good job of avoiding the sacks that have previously plagued him when pressured. There were multiple plays where Goff of old would have panicked. Instead, he navigated the pocket as best as he could and extended plays. He is no Lamar Jackson, but he kept the sack total far lower than it could have been.
However, the pressure got to him at the most inopportune moments. Goff’s two interceptions came on outside passes that were pounced on by Cowboys defenders. Better ball placement and better velocity and those game-changing plays aren’t made. The Cowboys were inches away from turning the first into a touchdown, while the second just outside the two-minute warning. The pressure really limited the passing attack and Goff was inaccurate on the day, going just 19-of-34 on passing attempts.
John’s Turning Point: Decker’s overturned two-point conversion
Were there other moments that tipped the scales in Dallas’ favor? Unquestionably. However, no moment stands out more than the reversed Taylor Decker conversion. Instead of Detroit taking the lead with 23 seconds left, they wound up failing the subsequent attempt and lost the game.
Former offensive tackle Mitchell Schwartz has a good thread on the issue. As it stands, there is no definitive answer from the NFL aside from what was called on the field. From what Schwartz suspects, the official may have made a pivotal mistake:
They just showed it and it sure looks like the ref messed up! He’s talking to Decker and Sewell as Skipper runs in, who never gets to the ref to report. So I think Decker was the one reporting but the ref is seeing Skipper running in and announces it as Skipper. If so….WOOF— Mitchell Schwartz (@MitchSchwartz71) December 31, 2023
You can even see Decker get sent over to the official by Goff:
Goff literally sends Decker over to report.— Sam Monson (@PFF_Sam) December 31, 2023
Gonna need a new story, officials pic.twitter.com/9lUbyQFChV
Both head coaches seem to confirm this theory that the official mistook Decker for Dan Skipper:
Mike McCarthy says refs told him 70 (Skipper) was announced as eligible.— Steve Palazzolo (@PFF_Steve) December 31, 2023
Dan Campbell said the officials thought Dan Skipper reported.— Pride of Detroit (@PrideOfDetroit) December 31, 2023
I’m at a loss for words with the Lions and their track record of getting screwed by officiating.