GREEN BAY—Sam Shields had solid coverage, and Dez Bryant made a remarkable play.
Those facts will never be in dispute, but whether or not Bryant's leaping 31-yard catch down to the 1-yard line on fourth down with just over four minutes left should have been overturned will be a subject of debate for a long, long time.
After the Packers challenged the reception, replays showed the ball hitting the ground as Bryant reached it out toward the goal line. According to the rule regarding players going to the ground during a reception, they "must maintain possession of that football throughout the entire process of the catch," referee Gene Steratore said in the official pool report.
In conjunction with the replay office in New York, Steratore ruled the pass incomplete. Instead of the Cowboys being less than a yard from a go-ahead TD, the Packers got the ball back with 4:06 left and never let Dallas get it again.
"I don't think it was complete," Shields said. "The refs made a good call on that. Things go down like that. It's part of football."
Shields confessed that, without seeing the replay, he thought Bryant caught it, but he said fellow cornerback Casey Hayward was the first on the field to see the ball jostled as it hit the ground.
"He hauled tail to the sideline to tell the coach he didn't catch it," Shields said.
Other teammates were thinking the same thing. It turned out to be the first challenge by Head Coach Mike McCarthy this season that was successful.
"Once you see it on the video board, the first thing that came to my head was the Calvin Johnson rule," cornerback Tramon Williams said, referring to the controversial ending to the Lions-Bears game in Week 1 of 2010, when Johnson was ruled to not have completed a catch while going to the ground in the end zone on a play that would have won the game for Detroit. "I thought it was clear.
"Same exact thing. The referees made the right call in my book."
Williams also wasn't surprised at the Cowboys' play call there, going for broke despite needing just two yards for the first down.
"When it's do-or-die, throw to your main guy," Williams said. "I felt that's exactly what they were going to do. We sent the guys at (Romo, with a blitz), and we have to hold on in the back end."
Shields got a hand on the ball as Bryant leaped over him to grab it, and that movement of the ball may have factored into the officials declaring that Bryant never had full control of the ball.
"Sam fought for that ball, got his hands in there," Williams said. "I think he might have made it move it a little bit. That's why the play happened the way it did. Game of inches, and we fought for all those inches."
Costly scrum: In the third quarter, trailing 14-10, the Packers looked on the verge of taking the lead until a scrum broke out in the red zone.
Rookie Davante Adams caught a 5-yard pass and was fighting for extra yards when Packers guard T.J. Lang threw a block on former University of Wisconsin defensive lineman Nick Hayden. The Cowboys took exception, a bunch of pushing and shoving ensued, and ultimately Lang was called for unnecessary roughness.
"I saw guys still wrapping him up trying to take him to the ground," Lang said. "I thought I heard the whistle as soon as I made contact with the guy, so I didn't think it was late. That's not the kind of game I play. I just try to take care of my guys.
"I asked the ref later what they saw, and he said they have a bunch of refs upstairs and they felt it should have been on me for instigating the little melee there. It is what it is."
The dead-ball penalty was a big one, making it third-and-16 from the Dallas 22-yard line instead of third-and-1 from the 7. The Packers ended up kicking a field goal to get within 14-13.
"I obviously felt (terrible) there after the penalty – there's no guarantee we would have scored a touchdown – but maybe taking four points off the board," Lang said. "So I'm probably the happiest guy in the locker room that we won."
Key recovery: Tight end Andrew Quarless had four receptions for 31 yards, including a 4-yard TD to open the scoring, but his biggest play of the game came on special teams.
The Cowboys had just taken a 21-13 lead in the third quarter when Randall Cobb fumbled the ensuing kickoff. Amidst a pile of bodies, Quarless somehow came out with the ball at the Green Bay 20-yard line, preventing the Cowboys from getting a turnover in scoring territory.
"Right place, right time, I think," Quarless said. "I actually had to fight a little bit, saw some people around it. I had to push a couple people off. I'm glad I was there.
"I think that was big. That definitely could have been game-changing."
Seven plays later, Adams finished off a 90-yard drive with a 46-yard catch-and-run for a TD, and the Packers were within 21-20.
Asthma issues: Running back Eddie Lacy has rotated series with James Starks all season, but Lacy was absent from the offense for a couple of extended stretches. He said his asthma was acting up in the low 20s temperatures.
"Breathing stuff, yeah," Lacy said.
The Packers went with Starks (five carries, 16 yards) on a few series and then for much of the second half shifted receiver Randall Cobb around in the backfield.
Lacy began the game with seven carries for 45 yards on the Packers' opening drive, but he ran the ball just 12 more times the rest of the game. With the help of a 29-yard run in the third quarter, he topped 100 yards, finishing with 19 carries for 101.
"They're going out there like they've got a point to prove," Lacy said of his offensive line. "They're just as physical as any good O-line in the league. You can definitely see that." COMPLETE GAME COVERAGE
Green Bay played Dallas in the postseason for the seventh time and the first time since 1996. Photos by Jim Biever, Packers.com.