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League admits errors on Lions-Saints fumble

Wild Card Playoffs - Detroit Lions v New Orleans Saints

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 07: Willie Young #79 of the Detroit Lions causes Drew Brees #9 of the New Orleans Saints to fumble the ball in the second quarter during their 2012 NFC Wild Card Playoff game at Mercedes-Benz Superdome on January 7, 2012 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

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Sunday’s game between the Steelers and Broncos included a bad call on an apparent fumble that allowed the Steelers to force an overtime period from which the Broncos emerged with a memorable win. Saturday night’s game between the Lions and Saints included a bad call on an apparent fumble that could have allowed the Lions to seize a 21-7 lead late in the first half.

The league admits that two mistakes were made on the play. One hurt the Lions, and one helped the Lions.

With 5:39 left in the second quarter, Saints quarterback Drew Brees was hit while attempting a pass. The ball popped forward. Believing it to be an incomplete pass, an official blew his whistle. Lions linebacker Justin Durant thereafter recovered the ball and ran toward the end zone. Then, it was announced that the ruling on the field was that Brees had fumbled -- and that Detroit had recovered.

This prompted outrage from Lions fans, who believed that Detroit had been robbed of a touchdown. Those Lions fans are right, but it could have been even worse.

“Referee Tony Corrente ruled the play was a fumble and a recovery by Detroit,” the league said in a statement emailed Sunday night to PFT. “However, during the play and before Detroit recovered the fumble, another official blew the whistle believing it was an incomplete pass. Because the ruling on the field was a fumble, and the whistle came before the recovery, the play is dead because of the inadvertent whistle and the Saints should have retained possession of the ball. New Orleans would then have had the choice to put the ball in play at the spot where possession was lost or to replay the down. Inadvertent whistles are not reviewable.”

So, basically, the inadvertent whistle took away the Lions’ touchdown. But the rules dictate that the inadvertent whistle also should have given possession back to the Saints, since the ball had not been recovered at the time the inadvertent whistle blew. (Given the option of taking possession at the spot of the fumble or playing the down over, the Saints would have taken the Mulligan.)

It’s a nonsensical provision, and if the Lions had lost possession of the ball entirely there could have been a “Fire Millen"-style march upon the league offices. Given that video is now used to award possession after a whistle is blown in multiple other situations, the league needs to ensure that, if/when last night’s events happen again, the defense will at a minimum retain possession in the event of an inadvertent whistle.

Not because the officiating crew made a mistake in applying the rules, but because that’s what the rules require.