Every NFL playoff game changes legacies. And one play can change a playoff game.
The Dallas Cowboys know. Their history might look a lot different today had Dez Bryant’s catch at Lambeau Field two years ago not been overturned.
Here’s a refresher on the controversial play, which lives on in “You caught it, fam” messages to Bryant on Twitter. On fourth-and-2 with 4:42 left and the Cowboys trailing 26-21, Tony Romo threw it deep to Bryant. Bryant seemed to make an amazing catch for a 32-yard gain down to Green Bay’s 1-yard line. But the Packers challenged, and even though it looked like a catch, officials ruled Bryant didn’t complete the catch. Or something. The play was ruled an incompletion, and the Cowboys never got the ball back.
The play will be brought up plenty of times this week. Wednesday was the second anniversary of the game, and the Packers and Cowboys are preparing to meet again Sunday in a divisional playoff game. The Cowboys have not won a divisional playoff game since January of 1996, though Cowboys fans would argue they had one taken away from them two years ago.
When Bryant caught the pass, Joe Buck and Troy Aikman on Fox’s broadcast didn’t seem to think anything was wrong. The Packers challenged, but that seemed at the moment like a desperation move. Then the broadcast came back from commercial break and Buck threw it to former NFL vice president of officiating Mike Pereira. Then it finally seemed like something huge could be happening.
“I don’t think he made a football move with it, so when he hit the ground, the ball touched the ground and then came loose,” Pereira said. “If it’s me, I reverse it to an incomplete pass.”
Moments later, referee Gene Steratore announced it was an incomplete pass. Bryant was shocked and walked on the field to find someone to argue with. Buck mentioned what a great challenge it was by the Packers. It went from being one of the great playoff catches in NFL history to one of the biggest controversies.
It’s not crazy to think that NFL history entirely changes if Bryant’s catch was ruled a catch.
Dallas ran the ball very well that season, just like this season. There’s a very good chance the Cowboys would have scored from the 1-yard line with four downs to get in. Maybe Aaron Rodgers would have rallied the Packers to win after that, but it’s no sure thing.
The Packers went on to lose the NFC championship game at the Seattle Seahawks in heartbreaking fashion, but maybe Dallas wouldn’t have lost at Seattle that day. The Cowboys won 30-23 at Seattle earlier that regular season in a game that Dallas dominated. They matched up well with the Seahawks. Russell Wilson played terribly for most of the NFC title game against Green Bay, although there’s no guarantee he would have been bad against the Cowboys too. But Dallas could have won at Seattle. The Cowboys already had done it once that season.
The Cowboys would have had a really tough challenge in the Super Bowl, had they made it, against the Patriots. But the Cowboys had a strong team that season and they would have given the Patriots a good game, at the very least. Dallas was masterful that season at using the running game to control the clock and keep the opponent’s offense of the field.
There are a lot of hypothetical steps to take to give the Cowboys a ring that season, or even a Super Bowl trip, if Bryant’s catch stood. But a Super Bowl appearance, even with a loss, would have changed how we view Bryant, Cowboys coach Jason Garrett, certainly Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, and many others playing for Dallas that day. Dallas might not have won the NFC that season if Bryant’s catch stood, but Cowboys fans will probably argue that it was taken from them. We’ll never know.
Just remember when you watch this weekend’s divisional games: One play for either side could end up changing the entire playoffs.
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