The Packers offense could not help Aaron Rodgers on Monday, but luckily for Green Bay, the referees could. Green Bay’s 23-22 victory over Detroit was marred by a flurry of questionable decisions, but on the final drive, a blown call cost the Lions the chance to get the ball down one point with more than a minute left, effectively ending the game and putting Green Bay in sole possession of first place in the NFC North.
Monday was a throwback Packers game, which is to say Rodgers had to do everything himself. Star receiver Davante Adams missed the game with a turf toe injury. Slot receiver Geronimo Allison left the game after a scary hit to the head in the third quarter. Outside receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling played through an injury he suffered midgame. Just about every other Green Bay skill player demonstrated mild to staggering incompetence. Running back Aaron Jones lost a fumble on second-and-5 at the Detroit 43-yard line. On the following drive, Rodgers found Jones comically wide open for an easy touchdown only for Jones to drop the ball. Later on the same drive, Rodgers threw a perfect pass to Jimmy Graham in the end zone that landed in the tight end’s breadbasket, but he also dropped the ball. Punt returner Darrius Shepherd attempted to catch a punt with his arms stretched out above his head like a wide receiver, but did not call a fair catch and fumbled immediately upon being hit, with the Lions recovering. Later in the game Rodgers threw a ball to Shepherd that went through the receiver’s hands, bounced off of his face mask, and flew into the air, where it was plucked by a Detroit defender and returned 55 yards.
Despite all of that, the Packers won. A piece of that is because their defense played well. A larger piece is that the referees blew calls in such spectacular fashion that Barry Sanders said the NFL needs a preventative measure, the Fortnite player Ninja tweeted that he was done attending Lions games, and Pro Football Talk (recklessly) speculated that it was part of a conspiracy for Roger Goodell to get revenge on Matt Patricia. Let’s run through all the questionable penalties from Monday night, the impact they had on the game, and whether they were justifiable calls.
The Bad Omen
The call: Turnover on downs. No, touchdown. Actually, wait … yes, touchdown.
How it impacted the game: Established a tone of incompetence.
Was it justifiable? No.
With Detroit up 3-0 in the first quarter, Patricia kept his offense in to go for a touchdown on fourth-and-goal at the 1-yard line. Kerryon Johnson plowed into the trenches and disappeared like that guy who went to see the Demogorgon in the first season of Stranger Things. After the play, one referee waved his arms to signal Johnson was short while another signaled touchdown.
Clete Blakeman, the head ref in the white hat, points his arm toward the other end zone to signal it was the Packers’ ball moments before backtracking and declaring it a touchdown. This specific moment did not change the game, but it did make it fair game to question the refs the rest of the evening.
The Gray Area
The call: Defensive holding on Lions safety Tracy Walker
How it impacted the game: Turned a 50-yard field goal attempt into a first down for Green Bay.
Was it justifiable? Kind of.
With the Packers facing a third-and-5 at the Lions’ 33-yard line, a Rodgers pass for Allison fell incomplete, but the Packers were bailed out by a defensive holding call on Walker elsewhere on the field. There was contact and Graham fell down, which caused the refs to throw the flag. But replay showed Graham may have slipped, not been pushed.
It’s tough to dock the refs for getting this one wrong, especially with Walker’s quick but clear contact with Graham’s face mask shortly before he fell. But that doesn’t mean the call was correct. What would have been fourth-and-5 and a long Mason Crosby field goal attempt became a first down for the Packers in Lions territory.
Six plays after the defensive holding penalty, the Lions lined up 12 players on a Green Bay field goal attempt. There were in fact 12 players on the field, marking the second time a penalty had extended the Packers’ drive after the Lions had beaten them on third down. The Packers scored a touchdown two plays later.
The Bad One That Everyone Agreed With in the Moment
The call: Unnecessary roughness on Tracy Walker
How it impacted the game: Moved the Packers up 15 yards.
Was it justifiable? Incorrect, but justifiable.
Viewing this play at full speed, there didn’t seem to be any question that the hit on Packers receiver Geronimo Allison needed to be flagged.
Allison remained motionless for a horrifying amount of time, then later walked to the locker room and was evaluated for a concussion. As scary as the hit was, a replay showed there was little that Walker, the defender, could do. He was playing the ball, not trying to hit Allison, and he was coming at an angle low to the ground.
As much as the NFL wants to legislate these hits out of football, the reality is that they are unavoidable. ESPN rules analyst John Parry, who refereed three Super Bowls, said it was not a penalty, but it’s easy to see why the flag was thrown.
The Drive Extender
The call: Illegal use of hands against defensive end Trey Flowers
How it impacted the game: Turned a fourth-and-21 into a first down.
Was it justifiable? No.
Flowers’s hand is clearly grabbing Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari by the shoulder, not the face mask, but the refs were unable to tell the difference amid the commotion.
Parry didn’t even bother trying to defend the call, while commentator Booger McFarland was animated immediately after the play. “That’s inexcusable,” McFarland said. “That cannot happen on a play like that.”
If the sack by defensive tackle Kevin Strong had stood, the Packers would have had a fourth-and-21 at their own 44-yard line and likely punted the ball back to Detroit. Instead they were awarded a first-and-10 at the Lions’ 40 and scored a touchdown three plays later to make the game 22-20.
The PI Call That Wasn’t
The non-call: No pass interference against Packers cornerback Will Redmond
How it impacted the game: Would have given Detroit 30-plus yards of field position.
Was it justifiable? No.
With the Lions on their own 41-yard line and up 22-20 with less than eight minutes to go, Matt Stafford tossed a pass deep to Marvin Jones Jr. As Jones went up for the ball, Packers cornerback Will Redmond draped his arm around Jones’s chest and quickly pulled his arm back out to hit the ball out of the air. The move certainly seemed to knock Jones off of his course, but no flag came. Pass interference is reviewable, but only one of 22 challenged pass interference calls has been reversed since Week 3 of this season, so Patricia was likely wise to keep the flag in his pocket.
If interference had been called, the spot would have given the Lions the ball on the cusp of the red zone, in prime position to kick a field goal or score a touchdown to extend their lead. Instead they punted two plays later and never got the ball back.
The call: Illegal use of hands against defensive end Trey Flowers (again)
How it impacted the game: Effectively ended it.
Was it justifiable? Lol.
For the second time in the fourth quarter, there was a phantom illegal-use-of-the-hands penalty called on Flowers after he’d clearly placed his hands on Bakhtiari’s shoulder.
“It was on the left shoulder once again,” Parry said on the broadcast. “It does look like it’s on the shoulder pad rather than the neck.”
It’s the kind of repeat mistake that would make sense if Flowers was known for this type of behavior. In fact, Flowers had never been called for an illegal-use-of-the-hands penalty until Monday night, per the broadcast.
The Lions attempted to let the Packers score a quick touchdown to get the ball back, but running back Jamaal Williams purposely stopped just shy of the end zone. Green Bay bled the clock to the final few seconds, and Mason Crosby drilled a 23-yarder with no time remaining to give the Packers a 23-22 win.
This is not the first time the Lions have experienced a devastating loss to the Packers. Five of Rodgers’s 20 game-winning fourth-quarter drives were against the Lions entering Sunday, including his miracle Hail Mary on an untimed down in 2015. But Monday’s loss added to an even more gut-wrenching Detroit pattern—being burned by the referees.
Add this one to the montage. And take Ninja’s name off of the VIP list at Ford Field.
The obvious answer to mistakes like these is for the NFL to come up with a solution to make horrendous calls and non-calls reviewable. The NFL already tried to do this to a degree after the NFC championship game and botched it. Many head coaches reportedly supported the addition of a booth judge who could reverse egregious, obviously incorrect game-changing calls. The league did not implement this change. Instead, it made pass interference reviewable. The decision was baffling. Nobody left the NFC championship game upset that pass interference specifically was missed. Fans were mad that an obvious call was missed, period. Rather than address a need to correct obvious mistakes, however, the NFL created a new problem by making all pass interference penalties reviewable. But that rule change has not accomplished much, as evidenced by the refs’ reluctance to reverse those calls upon review, which seems to suggest the league does not want such a decisive play to be reversed willy-nilly.
While the league is cleaning up that mess, it has not handled the real problem: that referees botch calls at the end of games. The failure to address—or truly acknowledge—what happened in January has now cost the Lions a win in the most competitive division in football.