OAKLAND –It's amazing to think that, in a game that featured so many dramatic moments and unlikely turns, what will be remembered most is a simple piece of paper.
Sure, there were amazing football plays. Dez Bryant's 40-yard catch and Anthony Brown's dropped interception and Jeff Heath's game-winning strip all jump to mind, as they were all pivotal moments in this 20-17, must-have win.
But the scene-stealer, the thing they'll be talking about years from now, is that piece of paper – the one that NFL official Gene Steratore used to confirm that Dak Prescott had picked up a first down on a pivotal 4th-and-1 from his own 39-yard line with five minutes remaining in the game.
"I've never seen the referee pull out a card," Prescott said. "That was interesting, but I felt like I got it. I felt like it wasn't that close. We got it anyways so it doesn't matter, but that was interesting."
Prescott is underselling the situation by a longshot to simply call it "interesting." The moment was the centerpiece of the most dramatic night of the Cowboys' season, as the width of an index card determined whether they'd continue on their march toward a go-ahead field goal or give Derek Carr great field position to try to win the game for the Raiders.
"I know that we've all thought that cigarette paper is pretty thin – and that was down to cigarette paper thin," said Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones. "Really, it's amazing when that ball had to be placed, in the middle of all that mass, and they had to pick a spot and stick it down there on the grass – and that was the spot that they had to measure."
The Cowboys can thank Jason Witten for being in position to even make such a call. Facing 3rd-and-10 from his own 30-yard line, Prescott escaped pressure and found his tight end toward the near sideline. Witten fought off Oakland safety Karl Joseph for what initially appeared to be a first down – only for Oakland to challenge the spot and have the officials rule it 4th-and-short.
"We were able to try to push it there with a broken down play," Witten said. "I got close, and then going for the QB sneak."
Prescott may have felt it wasn't close, and Cowboys coach Jason Garrett may have agreed with him, as he appeared ready to challenge the spot of the fourth down sneak. That obviously wasn't necessary, as Steratore instead etched this game into some strange moment of NFL history with his measurement strategy.
"The decision was made based on my visual look that the ball was touching the pole. The card did nothing more than reaffirm," Steratore said after the game. "The judgment was not made by the card itself. It was made by my visual looking at the football as it relates to the line and the pole."
In all honesty, that explanation might make the whole thing harder to understand – but the end result was crystal clear. Steratore walked away from the ball's placement and signaled for a Dallas first down, to the delight of the Cowboys and the dismay of their opponents.
"Never seen air like that and it somehow turn into a first down," said Raiders coach Jack Del Rio. "There was air between the ball and the stick. That's short, OK. Goes the other way. Period."
It obviously didn't, though. Having secured a first down, Prescott hit Keith Smith for 12 yards. Two plays later, he connected with Dez Bryant for 40 yards, moving the Cowboys down to the Oakland 5-yard line, where they'd eventually kick the go-ahead field goal.
None of that happens without a literal, paper-thin judgment call. In a league that is lauded for its parity, the Cowboys and Raiders might have set a new standard.
With the call having gone his way, Jones had to laugh when he was asked if Steratore's card should be sent to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, to be commemorated. He had a better idea.
"It will never find a higher value than it will find in the halls of the Dallas Cowboys, if I can get that paper," he said.