Well, that was certainly an interesting game! For 59 minutes, the Cowboys and Lions were locked in a dead heat, exchanging blows and the lead during a game that could easily be billed as a playoff preview. Then came the controversial ending, with officials getting involved on a two-point play that ultimately resulted in the Cowboys winning 20-19.
Believe it or not, though, that illegal touching call wasn’t the only play that unfolded in this game. There were quite a few plays throughout that were huge in shaping the contest, and played a part in things even being so close to where a penalty in the final minute could be so talked about. These five plays were especially impactful in determining the outcome.
Dak Prescott avoids safety, hits bomb to CeeDee Lamb
After Dak Prescott threw an interception on the Cowboys’ opening drive, their defense got a stop in short order. That gave Prescott and the offense the ball back, still down 3-0 and looking to take the lead. But a well-placed punt started them off at their own 11-yard line.
The first play saw Tony Pollard get stuffed for a loss. After an incomplete pass, the Cowboys were looking at third and 13 from their own eight. That’s when Prescott delivered a signature moment.
Prescott expertly evaded the blitzing linebacker, which would’ve resulted in a safety if he was sacked, and found CeeDee Lamb for a massive play. Lamb caught the pass near midfield, and then managed to go the rest of the way for a touchdown because his defender fell down trying to catch up to the receiver. This play provided a spark for the Cowboys, and was also a rare moment of the team snatching success from the jaws of disaster.
CeeDee Lamb fumbles into the endzone for safety
In all the brouhaha that was the final few seconds of this game, it’s easy to forget that it really shouldn’t have been that close to begin with. A few drives later, the Cowboys got a big takeaway when Jourdan Lewis picked off a pass in Dallas territory, giving the Cowboys a chance to build on their 7-3 lead.
The Cowboys wasted no time in marching down the field after that pick, starting with a chunk play to Brandin Cooks. It wasn’t long before the Cowboy had first and goal from five yards out, and Prescott quickly hit Lamb on a play that looked like an easy touchdown.
CeeDee Lamb fumble out of the end zone! No TD and Lions ball.— Kyle Yates (@KyleYNFL) December 31, 2023
Fantasy football fun! pic.twitter.com/wGZoKlbvRA
Credit where it’s due, though, as the Lions defender was able to knock the ball out as Lamb moved to reach it out across the goal line. Because of his efforts, the Lions triggered a touchback instead of allowing a touchdown. Detroit didn’t score on their next drive, but they did prevent the Cowboys from making it a 14-3 lead and, thus, kept things close for longer.
Dak Prescott finds Brandin Cooks on big third down
Another thing getting forgotten in the chaos of this game’s conclusion was the fact that, for the second week in a row, Dak Prescott led a go-ahead touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter. But that touchdown never would’ve happened if not for another great play from the quarterback earlier in the drive.
Pollard got stuffed for no gain on second down, bringing up third and five. As Prescott took the snap and dropped back, Lions blitzers were bearing down on him. This hurried Prescott’s process, and he fired a deep ball to Cooks down the sideline. Cooks had the perfect angle and hauled in the catch, picking up 21 yards before going out of bounds.
Prescott had to be decisive on this play - he didn’t have time to go from read to read - and he was; Cook had to beat his man and find the ball in the air, and he did. This was a bang-bang play that ultimately boiled down to two players executing on the fly, and it extended a crucial drive. Six plays later, Prescott hit Cooks for the touchdown.
Questionable tripping penalty puts Cowboys in weird spot
A couple of drives later, the Lions still trailed 17-13 and were just on the plus side of the two minute warning. That’s when Donovan Wilson made a huge play to pick off Jared Goff, setting the Cowboys up in Detroit territory.
With one play before the two minute warning, Dallas had a golden opportunity to kill some clock. But their very first play saw a seven-yard run from Pollard get called back. Peyton Hendershot had been called for tripping, an unusual penalty. After further review, it’s increasingly difficult to see where a trip occurred.
Here is the other one: not a great angle but there is no way Hendershot should have been called for tripping. Hutchinson? Perhaps. Holding? Maybe. But no way on tripping. Will need to see the all 22. pic.twitter.com/DRbafoxjrw— Bob Sturm (@SportsSturm) December 31, 2023
Here is the 89-Peyton Hendershot tripping play at the 2 min warning. pic.twitter.com/kRqrqVpCJl— Bob Sturm (@SportsSturm) December 31, 2023
Regardless of the validity of the penalty, it cost the Cowboys. Instead of second and three, they had first and 25 at the Detroit 44. That put the offense in a weird spot of needing to throw in order to get back into comfortable scoring position while also wanting to run to eat up clock. All of this happened because of the tripping penalty, which completely changed what could’ve been a decisive, game-clinching drive.
That controversial two point attempt
Of course, it’s impossible to talk about this game without bringing up the controversy that was its end. The Lions marched 75 yards downfield in a little over a minute to score a touchdown. Instead of kicking the extra point, tying things up, and heading to overtime, the Lions went for two.
They ran a trick play with a sixth offensive lineman that called for Goff to throw to left tackle Taylor Decker. The only problem is that head referee Brad Allen announced that it was Dan Skipper, not Decker, who had reported as eligible. That meant that Decker was not allowed to run a route or catch the ball. Instead of correcting Allen on who was supposed to be eligible, the Lions lined up and ran the play anyway.
Unsurprisingly, Dallas did not cover a lineman they had been told was ineligible, and Decker was left wide open to catch the pass. Detroit thought they had just won, and they would have without the error in reporting, but the penalty erased it all. Even still, the Lions could have then kicked the extra point and taken their chances in overtime. They also ran two more two point tries, because Micah Parsons was called for offsides on the second try. Detroit had two additional opportunities to atone for the mistake on the successful two point try, but they failed both times and the Cowboys emerged victorious.