GLENDALE, Ariz. — It may not be the play that saved the game, but it definitely made sure the game didn’t turn.
The Cardinals, who struggled on offense for most of the afternoon, drove all the way to the Detroit 36 before stalling. Leading 14-6, the decision was made to bring Drew Butler in for the punt, hoping to pin the Lions near their goal line. The strategy looked like it may have worked, as Justin Bethel was able to grab the ball just before it reached the end zone.
Sensing he was falling into the end zone, Bethel tossed it back into the field of play, where Lions returner Jeremy Ross scooped it up and returned it to the Arizona 46.
Instead of pinning the Lions inside their own one, the Lions — who had struggled all afternoon to move the ball against a very stout Cardinals defense — were about to set up shop in Arizona territory.
Then Cardinals coach Bruce Arians threw his red challenge flag, arguing that Bethel had gained control of the ball, thus rendering the play dead at that point.
Bethel said Arians asked him if he had possession of the ball, and he was sure that he did.
The call on the field was reversed, and while the Lions were able to escape, they got no further than the Arizona 47.
“Obviously, big play there in the kicking game that could’ve went either way, but I knew Justin had possession and clarified that we could challenge that,” Arians said after his team held on for a 14-6 victory, a win that improved their record to 9-1.
Seems simple, right?
Bethel, who has made a name for himself as an outstanding special teams performer, said he knew he had possession of the ball but thought maybe his foot was touching the goal line. That would have given the Lions the ball at the 20, which, while not ideal, is still better than what the return would have led to.
“So I was like, ‘No, I was in the end zone, it’s a touch back, it’s a touch back, bring it back,'” he said. “And then I say, ‘Darn my good feet.'”
It ended up being an outstanding play by the Pro Bowler, who said he threw the ball back into the field of play because he felt himself falling and saw red jerseys in front of him. But when he turned around, all he could see was people chasing after Ross.
At that point, he just wanted the ball to be brought back, either to the one or the 20. Ultimately, things couldn’t have turned out much better.
“If they called it then that’s what they called it,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “It is what it is. Those guys make the final decision. They said he possessed the ball, and that was the ruling. It doesn’t matter what I think. Personal views don’t come into this at all.”