The biggest headlines coming out of the Cowboys’ resilient comeback victory over the Detroit Lions on Sunday kind of overshadowed the game itself. Arguably, the most attention was given to New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s slow embrace of Jerry Jones in the owner’s suite, which immediately became an Internet meme. Then there was the pass interference penalty that wasn’t, after a fourth quarter flag that was thrown against the Cowboys defense was picked up after the ref had announced the call, turning what would have been an automatic first down into a fourth down, and giving new life to Dallas in the game.
That video up there is of Fox commentator and former NFL head of officiating Mike Pereira discussing the call, which Cowboys fans are presumably already sick of.
If they’re tired of it, they have reason to be: A lot of the reason people are outraged over the call is that it’s a stunningly clear and obvious example of faceguarding, or preventing the receiver from being able to see the ball, which is a penalty in high school and college football—but not in the NFL, so the penalty looks worse than it really is. There is pass interference there as well—Cowboys linebacker Anthony Hitchens does make some contact with receiver Brandon Pettigrew—but it’s not so egregious an example of pass interference that a no-call there is more shocking than, say, when the Lions were let off the hook earlier in the game when a flag wasn’t thrown for running into the kicker on a Cowboys punt attempt.
In other words, calls are missed in a lot of football games, and singling out this one as the reason the Cowboys won ignores the rest of what happened over the course of sixty minutes. Still, the circumstances of the flag being picked up were, to put it mildly, unusual: referees overrule one another on penalty calls all the time, but it almost never happens after the lead official has announced the game-changing call, with the offense about to take another snap. Conspiracy theorists immediately declared the game rigged, insisting that the NFL wanted the ratings juggernaut that would be a Cowboys/Packers playoff game—and the fact that the NFL’s head of officiating had made headlines for hanging out on the Cowboys party bus earlier in the season didn’t help matters, either. If things looked a bit like a Buffalo Wild Wings commercial, well, you can’t blame people for seeing it that way.
Still, the story of a botched call isn’t the story of the game. There were bad calls that went against the Cowboys, too, and there’s no real difference on the outcome of the game between those and the one that everyone’s talking about on Monday—one of them just looks worse. The story of the game is that the Cowboys’ wobbly defense was stout when they needed to be against an offense that’s proven itself more than capable of mounting comeback victories. It’s that against one of the league’s best defenses, the Cowboys offense managed to eke out just enough offense from their playmakers to get the points they needed to win. It wasn’t the best performance of Tony Romo’s, DeMarco Murray’s, or Dez Bryant’s career (Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley, maybe), but it’s tough to score points on the 2014 Detroit Lions, and the Cowboys—which sputtered through much of the first half on offense, and which gave up an early touchdown on a drive that began on the Lions’ two-inch line—hung together to come back and take the lead.
That sort of resilience will almost certainly serve the Cowboys well next week, when they swap a stifling defense for one of the league’s most dangerous offenses, and leave behind the relatively comfy confines of AT&T Stadium in Arlington for the bitter January cold of Lambeau Field. By next week, the fact that the flag was picked up will be, for the most part, an asterisk in some Lions fans’ minds—NFL memories are short—with the bigger question being: Can the Cowboys possibly stop Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers?
Kids who weren’t even born the last time that the Cowboys won in the divisional round of the playoffs are in college now. It’s been a while since the Cowboys had many believers for a deep playoff run, and that appears to be the case again today, at least in Vegas: Green Bay, after the Cowboys’ victory, opened as 7-point favorites.
The Packers are one of the most efficient teams in the NFL, but the Cowboys match up better against them than they do the surging Seattle Seahawks (whom the Cowboys beat back in October, seemingly a lifetime ago). The Cowboys’ biggest challenge against the Lions was that Detroit’s defense smothered the team’s prolific offense. Green Bay’s defense is several orders of magnitude less effective than that of the Lions, however, and the Cowboys ought to be able to put points on the board. The fact that the Cowboys are such an effective running team—a rarity in today’s NFL—should likewise only help them in frigid conditions in Wisconsin.
In other words, the Cowboys should be able to score points against Green Bay, and they’ll probably need a lot of them, since Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers will most likely carve up the Cowboys’ defense on Sunday. Rodgers is having the best season of any quarterback in the NFL right now, and even stout defenses struggle to shut him down. It’s possible that Rodgers will score every time he gets the ball—but the Cowboys play the sort of offense that means that they can limit the amount of time Rodgers spends on offense, and then hope that a big play or two on defense and special teams can make the difference in the game.
It’s not going to be an easy game against the Packers—while seven points might seem like a disrespectful spread, favoring the home team by more than a field goal is certainly legitimate—but, on paper, the Cowboys should have lost a lot more games than they did this season. At this point, if you’re in on the Cowboys, you might as well just let it ride.
(AP Photo/Brandon Wade)