GREEN BAY, Wis. — By all accounts, Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo threw a perfect, arcing pass on a fourth down with the game on the line. Dallas’ star receiver, Dez Bryant, leapt high in the air and made a fabulous grab, landing a yard short of the goal line.
Trailing by five points with less than five minutes left in their playoff game against the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, the Cowboys were on the verge of advancing to the NFC Championship Game for the first time in 19 years.
But Packers coach Mike McCarthy — and most of the crowd, announced as a Lambeau Field-record 79,704 — saw Bryant bobble the ball as he hit the turf. McCarthy had lost all three challenges he made during the regular season, but he threw his red flag anyway.
“It was a confident challenge, and a hopeful one, too,” he said.
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Not long after, referee Gene Steratore turned the apparent catch into an incomplete pass, ruling that Bryant lacked full possession of the ball.
The Cowboys turned over the ball on downs and never got it back. The Packers ran out the clock for a 26-21 victory and will face the Seahawks in Seattle on Sunday for a shot at the Super Bowl.
“Although the receiver is possessing the football, he must maintain possession of that football throughout the entire process of the catch,” Steratore said after the game.
The reversed call was loaded with meaning. The Cowboys had advanced to the divisional-round game at Green Bay in part because of an equally controversial negating of a pass-interference call in last week’s game against Detroit. The Lions punted on the next play, and the Cowboys later mounted a scoring drive and won, 24-20.
The symmetry of the Cowboys’ benefiting from one reversal and agonizing over another one instantly fueled conspiracy theories on social media.
Whatever the cosmic significance, the contentious call is unlikely to diminish the dazzling effort by Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Although hobbled by a left calf injury, Rodgers completed 24 of 35 passes for 316 yards and three touchdowns, with no interceptions.
Because the Packers had earned a first-round bye, Rodgers had an extra week to recuperate. But as he stood in the tunnel before the game, slowly rocking back and forth, it was unclear how he would emerge.
When his name was called and he jogged out slowly to join his Packers teammates, the crowd roared and exhaled all at once.
Rodgers is the Packers’ undisputed leader, and without him in the lineup, Green Bay would have stood little chance against Dallas. Still, Rodgers’ leg had not fully healed, and, at least by his high standards, he looked like an ordinary quarterback Sunday — until he did not.
Grimacing and limping all game, Rodgers came alive as the day wore on, engineering a stirring comeback in a topsy-turvy game that included scuffles.
The Packers rejiggered their high-octane passing attack to offset Rodgers’ lack of mobility and the blanket coverage of Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, and the team’s running game, led by Eddie Lacy and James Starks, was effective.
In the third quarter, Davante Adams caught a short pass, eluded a defender and scampered 46 yards to the end zone to draw the Packers within a point of the Cowboys. In the fourth quarter, Aaron Rodgers evaded defenders and hit Richard Rodgers with a 13-yard scoring pass. Their 26-21 lead stood up.
“It’s fun to still be alive,” Aaron Rodgers said of the win. “To be the best, you have to beat the best.”