For a few beautiful seconds, the Detroit Lions thought that Matt Stafford had pulled off another game-winning comeback on Sunday. Stafford got the ball with 2:23 remaining and the Lions trailing the Falcons 30-26. Eighty-nine yards, 11 plays, four penalties, and one overturned interception later, Stafford appeared to have thrown a game-winning touchdown to receiver Golden Tate.
Super slow-mo of the Tate TD. You can make an argument he doesn't have complete control of the ball until he crosses goal line pic.twitter.com/MDrYrjvp6w— Isaac (@WorldofIsaac) September 24, 2017
Except a review overturned Tate’s touchdown, with officials saying he was down at the half-yard line. Was that the right call? Uh, I’m still not sure. I think his knee came down while the ball was a few inches short of the end zone, but I’m not sure whether he had possession when his knee touched the ground, and I’m not sure whether he’d been touched by a defender when his knee touched the ground. If I had to give an answer, I’d rule Tate short, but the officials needed to come up with indisputable evidence to overturn the ruling of a touchdown on the field. I don’t see indisputable evidence.
So the play didn’t end up giving Detroit a touchdown, but most Lions fans probably assumed their team had time to score with a fourth-and-goal from the half-yard line. But the review didn’t just take away the touchdown—it ended the game at 30-26, Falcons.
The NFL’s rulebook states, “If a replay review after the two-minute warning of either half results in the on-field ruling being reversed and the correct ruling would not have stopped the game clock, then the officials will run 10 seconds off the game clock.” The Lions’ play was overturned; Tate was down inbounds, meaning the clock should have been running, and only eight seconds remained when he went down. So the officials took the final seconds off the clock, ending the game. If the Lions had a timeout remaining, they could have called it to avoid the 10-second runoff, but they’d burned their final timeout on the Falcons’ final drive.
It is upsetting to see a game end on an obscure rule. But the rule makes sense: If the officials had ruled on the field that Tate was down inbounds, it would have been really hard for the Lions to get up to the line of scrimmage and get set in just eight seconds. I think the runoff rule does a reasonably fair job of preventing an offensive team from getting an unfair advantage from a stoppage caused by an incorrect official ruling overturned by review.
That said, I’m not sure that Tate’s touchdown should have been overturned. Anytime a game hinges on a close call, somebody is going to be disappointed, and Tate should know this better than anybody. Sometimes you’re the player who doesn’t get flagged for offensive pass interference and is given a touchdown after a simultaneous catch with a defender; sometimes you’re the player marked a foot short after you thought you’d scored.