A major officiating gaffe in the second quarter of Saturday night's NFC wild card game cost the Detroit Lions a potential touchdown that would have given the team a 14-point lead over the New Orleans Saints.
The play featured a bizarre combination of shoddy in-play officiating and confusing post-play interpretations that left viewers and television analysts baffled.
Drew Brees dropped back to pass on a second down from Detroit's 36-yard line and was hit by Willie Young of the Lions. The ball fluttered in the air, landing near a pile of Detroit defenders. A whistle blew the play dead while the ball was still free, an instant before a Lions defender picked up the ball with a clear path to the end zone.
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The pass was ruled incomplete and the Saints hurried to the line, trying to get a play off before officials could change their mind. After a brief zebra conference, it was determined that the ball had been dislodged from Brees' hand before he threw, thus making it a live ball. Since Detroit clearly recovered the fumble, the Lions were awarded the ball on their own 35-yard line.
The turnover was big for the Lions but could have been bigger. Had the whistle never blown, Detroit would have picked up the fumble and returned it for a touchdown and a 21-7 lead. Instead, the Lions went three-and-out on the subsequent possession. That early whistle cost the Lions seven points.
But we're not done with the story of the whistle quite yet. As NBC came out of its halftime break, Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth explained that because the whistle blew before the Lions recovered the fumble, the play should have been dead. By this interpretation, New Orleans should have had the ball. They insisted that the play was not reviewable because audio is not a part of replay challenges.
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That's not the case. The whistle only stopped the Lions fumble return, not the recovery. The so-called Hochuli Rule, instituted in 2009 after an inadvertent whistle in a San Diego Chargers game, ensures that the play continues even after a whistle is blown.
Jim Schwartz wasn't pleased with the call after the game. He spoke about the early whistle with reporters:
"[It] would have been nice to have capitalized on was the sack-forced fumble that should have been a touchdown, because every other time in this league they've let that play go and they don't blow the whistle. We were a victim of that last week, with them continuing plays, and for some reason in this game they decided to blow the whistle when that would have been seven points in this. [...] Those kind of missed opportunities are more where this game went."
Had officials stayed out of the way and kept the whistles quiet, Detroit would have had a touchdown and a 14-point lead. New Orleans' offense was so explosive that it probably wouldn't have mattered. It's too bad that in their first playoff game since 2000, the Detroit Lions didn't get a chance to find out.
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