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Lions players baffled by officiating in Wild Card loss

ARLINGTON, Texas -- The Lions left AT&T Stadium with their season over late Sunday, and few answers on why a crucial fourth-quarter pass-interference flag was picked up.

By the time Detroit players, coaches and executives boarded planes to return home on Sunday night, still shots of the contact between Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew and Cowboys linebacker Anthony Hitchens had been texted around, as had links to stories questioning the way it all went down.

At the heart of the problem for those traveling back to Michigan -- after the Lions' 24-20 loss to the Cowboys -- was the handling of the penalty on the field by referee Pete Morelli and his crew.

Pettigrew went up for a Matthew Stafford throw on third-and-1 from the Cowboys' 46, with 8:25 left, and a flag was thrown on Hitchens. Morelli announced the call, and spotted the ball at the 29, before picking up the flag and placing it back at the 46.

"I can't explain it," Pettigrew told me, shortly before exiting the stadium. "I tried to make a play on the ball. He was in the way of the ball. To me, I don't really understand them picking up the flag. I don't understand what they saw right there. I honestly don't know what to say about it. It's baffling."

Several Lions players expressed the belief that the officials used the hanging video board to conduct an independent review, but Morelli said in a pool report that it was simply a second set of eyes that led to the initial call being overturned.

"We got other information from another official from a different angle that thought the contact was minimal and didn't warrant pass interference," Morelli said in the report. "He thought it was face-guarding."

The Lions subsequently punted, and the Cowboys followed with a game-winning 11-play, 59-yard touchdown drive.

"Doesn't this seem shady to you?" one Lions player texted. "It's just crazy."

The interference call wasn't the only one that the Detroit players had an issue with.

A pair of defensive holding calls advanced the game-winning drive that followed, and one of those kept the drive alive by moving the sticks on a third-and-7. Linebacker DeAndre Levy admitted guilt on that one, but Detroit's defensive players expressed that the way the game was being played changed.

"In the first half, I'm sitting there, 'Wow, we haven't had a defensive penalty all day,'" said All-Pro safety Glover Quin. "Then, second half, we have four or five holding calls, they're giving them first downs like that, down in the red zone? We have them third down, second-and-long? It's not for me to say they were or they weren't, that's for the league to take a look at it and see."

One Lions official and another player also took issue with Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant coming on to the field after the Hitchens flag, without his helmet on, to protest the call -- "Explain how this is not a personal foul," one texted, with a picture of Bryant.

"When they keep recurring, it's tough," said veteran corner Rashean Mathis. "It's tough, because at the end of the day it dictates the outcome of the ballgame and you don't want that, especially when you're fighting tooth-and-nail with a team in a playoff atmosphere. It's tough. It'd be a little different if it was a regular season game. This was an all-or-nothing game. It's tough."

But Lions players did stop well short of attributing the loss to the officials.

That much was on them, they conceded. Even if they saw larger issues with the calls.

"Once you spot the ball 15 yards ahead, or wherever the play ended, I thought what stood, went," Tate said. "I was unaware you could have a unofficial review by looking at the jumbotron a few times, and then go back, take the ball all the way back and make it fourth-and-1. That's a crucial part of the game. However, that is not the deciding factor. We can't leave it up to the officials or them having home-field advantage. We can control that."

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer.

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