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The NFL Rule Book Got Weird in Cowboys-Raiders

A folded piece of paper somehow kept Dallas’s playoff hopes alive

Dallas Cowboys v Oakland Raiders Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

The Cowboys defeated the Raiders, 20-17, on Sunday night by literally the thinnest of margins.

Tied 17-17 with five minutes left in the fourth quarter, Dallas faced a fourth-and-1 from its own 39-yard line. A failed conversion would mean that the Raiders would nearly be in field goal range and could bleed out the clock en route to a victory that would essentially eliminate Dallas from the playoffs. Head coach Jason “The Clapper” Garrett decided to go for it anyway (mad respect).

With an empty backfield, Dak Prescott sneaked the ball up the middle. The spot required a measurement, but even with the chains out, it was still too close to call a first down or not.

So what’s referee Gene Steratore to do?

Yes, Steratore took a folded index card and ran it between the ball and the marker before awarding the Cowboys a first down, literally and figuratively swiping left on the Raiders’ playoff chances.

Is this really NFL protocol? Why were the Cowboys awarded a first down when it appeared that the paper fit between the marker and the ball? Was Steratore just guessing? Was the paper a check from Jerry Jones? The saga leaves far more questions than answers. As Al Michaels noted on the broadcast, this occurred across the bay from Silicon Valley. Mere miles from the seat of untold computing prowess that has given us companies like Apple, Facebook, and Juicero, the playoff fates of $2 billion sports empires were decided by a folded piece of paper.

Steratore explained his rationale in a postgame interview, where he said the decision was made “by my visual looking at the football as it relates to the line and the pole” (also known as sight).

It should be noted that Steratore was the same referee from the “Did Dez catch it?” game, where a controversial Dez Bryant non-catch in the 2014 playoffs essentially cost the Cowboys a win against the Packers. Sunday was Steratore’s first Cowboys game since that incident, and the paper incident seems to be a clear karmic rebalancing of the Force.

After they got the first down, the Cowboys kicked a field goal and took a 20-17 lead, giving the Raiders 1:44 to try to score. A minute later, Oakland had worked its way to the Dallas 8-yard line, giving the Raiders a game-tying chip-shot field goal in their back pocket with a chance for a touchdown to win the game.

On third down, Raiders quarterback Derek Carr scrambled and then decided to book it for the corner of the end zone. Looking for the touchdown, Carr lunged for the right pylon as he was met by Cowboys safety Jeff Heath, and, well …

Carr invoked the worst rule in sports—the dreaded “fumble out of the end zone for a touchback.” Dallas was awarded the ball, and the game was over.

According to The New York Times’ playoff machine, the Cowboys would have had a less than 5 percent chance of making the playoffs if they lost this game and won their next two. Now they have a 53 percent chance of making the playoffs if they win their next two games, and the Raiders are almost certainly out. All because of a piece of paper and the dumbest rule in football.