The Detroit Lions went from an apparent game-winning touchdown to a loss Sunday without a single play occurring in between. Here's what happened, along with why I think that referee Walt Coleman and his crew ultimately made the correct call.
With 12 seconds remaining, Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford threw what appeared to be a 1-yard touchdown pass to receiver Golden Tate -- a score that would have lifted the Lions to a 32-30 lead over the Atlanta Falcons. Tate caught a low pass and appeared to dive over the plane of the end zone.
There were eight seconds remaining when Coleman's crew signaled for a touchdown. That stopped the clock, of course. All scoring plays are reviewed automatically by the NFL, and when senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron saw the replay, he noted that Tate's left knee touched the ground before the ball crossed the plane. Because Falcons cornerback Brian Poole touched Tate's shoulder as he was falling, Tate was by rule down by contact.
Then the fun began.
Had the play originally been called correctly, the clock would not have stopped. In all likelihood, it would have expired before the Lions could run another play. To be fair, Lions coach Jim Caldwell said afterwards that his team "certainly" could have gotten another play off.
"We practice it all the time," Caldwell said.
Regardless, the NFL instituted a rule earlier this decade to account for such situations. Rather than allow a team to get a free stoppage of the clock inside of the two-minute mark, NFL rules now require there to be a 10-second runoff to simulate -- as best as can be done -- how much time would have run off absent the incorrect call.
Teams can terminate the 10-second runoff by using a timeout, but the Lions were out of them. So, because there were only eight seconds remaining at the time of the score, Coleman correctly ruled that the game was over.
It was a jarring and counterintuitive ending to a highly competitive game, but it matched the NFL's rules. Consider it from the Falcons' perspective. Would it have been fair to them for the Lions to get another play? By rule, they stopped Tate short of the goal line with the clock running. In the end, the NFL got the best and most accurate outcome it could have hoped for.