Detroit was leading 20-17 with 8:25 left in the fourth quarter when Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford threw a pass to tight end Brandon Pettigrew. The ball bounced off Cowboys linebacker Anthony Hitchens' back, a flag was thrown and referee Pete Morelli initially announced a pass interference penalty.
But officials then reversed the call -- without explanation -- taking away the penalty that would have given Detroit a first down in Dallas territory, according to Fox Sports.
Response to what the Bleacher Report dubbed "The Phantom Flag Play" was swift:
"If I was a Detroit Lions fan, I'd be screaming for referee blood about that," author George R.R. Martin wrote on his blog. "Picking up that flag on a FLAGRANT pass interference by Dallas in the fourth quarter was the worse call... or non-call... the NFL has seen since... well... since the non-call on the botched field goal attempt in the Giants/ 49ers playoff game ages ago. Shocking. Really shocking."
Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant even ran on the field without his helmet to argue the call with officials, but he wasn't penalized for his actions, For The Win reported.
The non-call forced the Lions to punt, which gave the Cowboys good field position and the momentum to score a touchdown and take the lead. The Cowboys went on to win the game, 24-20.
After the game, Morelli explained the decision.
"The back judge threw his flag for defensive pass interference," he said, according to the pool report. "We got other information from another official from a different angle that thought the contact was minimal and didn’t warrant pass interference. He thought it was face-guarding."
Face-guarding, he added, is a penalty in college, but not the NFL. However, Morelli said he probably should've waited before announcing the call.
"The information came and then the officials got together a little bit later, after it was given to me, the first information. It would have probably been smoother if we got together," he said.
Lions coach Jim Caldwell later said the refs' reasoning for the change was "not a good enough one." However, he didn't elaborate.
"I'm going to leave it at that," Caldwell said. "I'm not going to sit up here and act like that was the play that made a difference in the game. We still had our chances."
Pettigrew also thought the change was a bad decision.
"I thought it was ridiculous, to be honest. But there's nothing I can do about it ... He ran through me pretty much, trying to get back to the ball. To me, it was obvious. To them they made whatever call and picked up the flag," Pettigrew said, per ESPN.
The Dallas Cowboys will now head to Green Bay for a divisional-round matchup with the Packers, NBC Sports reported.
As for the Lions, well, they're going home disappointed and angry. The team has not won a playoff game since the 1991 season, when they beat Dallas.