With 8:25 left in the game, Cowboys rookie linebacker Anthony Hitchens was initially flagged for pass interference while defending Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew on a third-and-1 pass from the Dallas 46.
Referee Pete Morelli announced the penalty, which would have given the Lions a first down, but moments later changed the call to no penalty. The Lions lined up on fourth down, but their attempt to draw the Cowboys offside failed, and they eventually punted.
The Cowboys scored the game-winning points on their next drive.
"The back judge threw his flag for defensive pass interference," Morelli said in a pool report. "We got other information from another official from a different angle that thought the contact was minimal and didn't warrant pass interference. He thought it was face guarding."
Face guarding is a penalty in college football but not at the pro level. Back judge Lee Dyer threw the flag on Hitchens from the far side of the field. Head linesman Jerry Bergman offered the different -- and ultimately deciding -- view.
Morelli said he should have waited before making the initial announcement.
"The information came, and then the officials got together a little bit later after it was given to me, the first information," Morelli said. "It probably would've been smoother if we got together."
After the game, the Lions were upset. They led 20-17 at the time of the penalty and would have at least used more of the clock, if not scored a touchdown or a field goal.
"I thought it was a good call at first," Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford said. "I was told he did not make contact with the receiver. I thought it was the right call until he picked up the flag. I thought it was a penalty, but that's not my decision."
Said Pettigrew: "I thought it was ridiculous, to be honest. But there's nothing I can do about it. ... He ran through me pretty much, trying to get back to the ball. To me, it was obvious. To them, they made whatever call and picked up the flag."
Hitchens, who was playing despite a high right ankle sprain and did not practice during the week, had a different thought.
"I was just trying to play defense, and I felt like it was the right call," he said.
Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones was pleased with the decision but seemed to indicate he would be in favor of expanding replay rules to include pass interference.
"I've never seen one get that far into the next play and ready to go again and have it reversed, but I think that's a good thing," Jones said. "If we're going to stop action and we're going to have replay and we're going to have interpretation from New York -- which I'm all for -- and we're going to do all that, then we might as well get 'em all right. And, again, I think they made the right call in terms of not calling it. That's why they picked it up. It's not supposed to be."
Lions safety James Ihedigbo could only shake his head.
"I mean, they already spotted the ball as a pass interference, and then went back and said it wasn't pass interference," Ihedigbo told reporters after the game. "I don't know how that happens.
"Never, never. Eight years in the NFL, I haven't seen that happen."