In the end, however, all that mattered in the pivotal moment of the Dallas Cowboys-Green Bay Packers NFC Divisional playoff game was the judgment of the officials. And based on an ambiguous rule, the Packers were thankful to be on the right end of a replay review that helped to preserve a 26-21 victory and a trip to the NFC Championship game in Seattle next Sunday.
“Whew,” said a relieved Shields at his locker afterward. “I was very anxious. That was a critical point in the game. Things like that, these playoff games come down to inches. (It was a) good call by the refs.
“We were anxious. But we were all confident it wasn’t a catch.”
Confident because they knew the rule, otherwise known as the “Calvin Johnson Rule,” which basically tries to explain the process of making a catch. It was put into place after Johnson in a 2010 game at Chicago made a catch in the end zone and then lost the ball when he appeared to get up to celebrate. It was ruled incomplete.
On Sunday at Lambeau Field, that rule came into play on Bryant’s 31-yard catch from Tony Romo down to the Packers’ 1-yard line on a fourth-and-2. The Packers led at the time 26-21 at the 4:42 mark of the fourth quarter when coach Mike McCarthy made a critical decision to challenge the ruling on the field with just one time out remaining.
“I mean, some people probably think throwing red flags is a lot of fun. I mean, it’s not all it’s cut out to be, I can tell you that,” said McCarthy, who was 0-for-4 on replay challenges this season, including a challenge earlier in the game. “I had lost the challenge earlier but, based on the time of the game, it was my immediate reaction. But that was such an impactful play, you have to challenge that. Once again, I thought our game operations, it gave us a great look at it, and you are able to see exactly what the officials are seeing and what everybody else is seeing on TV.”
Bryant high-pointed Romo’s pass down the left sideline perfectly, leaping over Shields to make the catch. But on his way down, reaching for the goal line, the ball shuffled as it hit the ground, creating the question at hand. The officials overturned the call and, after the game, referee Gene Steratore gave this explanation:
“Although the receiver is possessing the football, he must maintain possession of that football throughout the entire process of the catch. In our judgment, he maintained possession but continued to fall and never had another act common to the game. We deemed that by our judgment to be the full process of the catch, and at that time he lands and the ball hits the ground, it comes loose as it hits the ground, which would make that incomplete; although he re-possesses it, it does contact the ground when he reaches so the repossession is irrelevant because it was ruled an incomplete pass when he had the ball hit the ground.”
Confused? The Packers had a more simple comparison. Cornerback Tramon Williams immediately referred to the “Johnson Rule,” saying, “I’ve watched Calvin Johnson make that same play about three times and they called it back so it was an excellent call by the refs.” Second-year veteran safety Micah Hyde said he also knew the “Johnson Rule” and thought it was applied correctly.
For Bryant, the perspective was different.
“All I know is I had possession, and I had possession of the ball coming down,” he said. “That’s possession right? One, two (feet), reach, hand, that’s possession. That’s possession.
“I tried to stretch forward. I wasn’t off balance. I was trying to stretch for it and get in the end zone.”
Shields thought his getting a hand on the ball at the point of the catch might have forced Bryant to lose control of the ball at the end of the play.
“I think that had a part in it,” he said. “If I didn’t get it, he would have caught it clean as he was going down but that little push, that caused him to fumble it a little bit.
“At first (I thought he caught it), then just looking at the replay, you know, it is what it is, it looked like there was a bobble on that. At first he made a great catch. It was good on good. He’s a great receiver, too. He got up and made a good play and at the end he came up bobbling it.”
Just as the Cowboys gambled by throwing deep on fourth down, the Packers’ defense took a shot by blitzing cornerback Casey Hayward from the slot and disguising linebacker Brad Jones, who dropped into coverage. That left Williams, Hyde, Shields and safeties Morgan Burnett and HaHa Clinton-Dix in man coverage on five eligible receivers. But Shields had a feeling Romo was going to his No. 1 receiver.
“Yeah, I knew it. He’s there go-to guy, Dez,” he said.
Said Romo: “We had a bunch of guys out in that route. They came after us with a cover zero look. I had a couple of options on the play and decided to go to Dez. I threw the ball where I thought he could make a play on the ball and (he) did a good job. They called it incomplete so obviously we didn’t score there. The calls don’t go your way sometimes and that is part of the game.”
Bryant, with just three catches for 38 yards in four targets, was the one Cowboys’ offensive star to be held in check for the game by the Packers defense. Otherwise, Romo (143.6 passer rating), running back DeMarco Murray (25 carries, 123 yards), and tight end Jason Witten (six catches, 71 yards) gave the Cowboys’ production.
A week ago in the Wild Card round against the Detroit Lions, the Cowboys got the benefit of pass interference penalty flag that was picked up by officials and went on for a come-from-behind win. This week, a controversial officials’ ruling went against them and will undoubtedly being talked about for days and maybe even weeks or years to come.
Maybe it was karma. Or maybe just an ambiguous rule gone in favor of the Packers.
“Sitting there, watching that play and dissecting it at the time of the game, we felt that it should be overturned obviously and we knew what the ruling was, obviously with the Calvin Johnson Rule,” said Williams. “We were hoping that they overturned it and we felt like the referees did the right thing.”
Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at email@example.com