CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Dec. 24, 2005) -- Ken Lucas and Julius Peppers pushed through the line, grasping at air in an effort to block Billy Cundiff's field goal.
Lucas was positive his left middle finger touched the ball right before he and Peppers crashed into the kicker. The deflection changed the trajectory, caused Cundiff's attempt to miss and locked up a postseason berth for the Carolina Panthers.
The officials said otherwise.
Peppers was called for roughing the kicker, giving the Dallas Cowboys a second chance to keep their fading playoff hopes alive.
Terry Glenn seized the opportunity by catching a 2-yard touchdown pass with 24 seconds to play Saturday to lift the Cowboys to a 24-20 victory over Carolina and ruin the Panthers' chance to clinch a playoff berth.
Lucas was furious with the outcome.
"Definitely I touched the ball, both me and God know it but I guess it wasn't enough to turn the play over," Lucas said. "Besides that, that wasn't roughing the kicker. Me and Pep landed on the ground and the kicker just fell over us.
"The referees, they called a lot of questionable calls today. What they did was they decided the game and decided the fate of who was going to win."
Cundiff, who had a first-half attempt blocked by Peppers, believed he was roughed.
"There was one guy down at my feet and another guy was right there where my leg was up in the air, so I had nowhere to go and the guy grazed me," Cundiff said. "I was hit."
Either way, it was the second chance Dallas (9-6) needed.
After two running plays, Drew Bledsoe found Glenn in the corner of the end zone for the game-winning score. It was a terrific bounceback for Dallas, which was humiliated 35-7 in Washington last week, and kept the Cowboys in contention for one of the NFC's wild-card spots.
"I think this team has a little spunk to it, I really do," coach Bill Parcells said. "I know we've had some ups and downs, but I like them. I do."
The Panthers (10-5) now find themselves in a logjam for the NFC South title. They entered the game one game up on Tampa Bay, but ended the day with the Buccaneers atop the division after an overtime win against Atlanta.
It capped off a frustrating day of undisciplined football that saw Carolina star receiver Steve Smith ejected in the third quarter for grabbing an official and an unusually poor defensive effort from the Panthers.
"The Cowboys kicked our butt," linebacker Brandon Short said. "They executed better than we did. I never would have expected it."
Julius Jones ran for a season-high 194 yards and two touchdowns as the Cowboys became the first team in 10 games to gain more than 300 yards total offense against Carolina. Glenn finished with 88 yards on four catches and the game-winning score.
Jones did the most damage, running roughshod over the Panthers and passing the 100-yard mark for the first time this season. He scored on a 43-yard touchdown run to put the Cowboys up 17-13 late in the third quarter.
"The only thing we know to do is come out swinging," Jones said. "When people are doubting you, you've got to do something about it and we did."
Dallas held its lead for most of the fourth quarter because the Panthers had few weapons after Smith, their big-play guy, was ejected.
Smith was thrown out after he was tackled out of bounds by Terence Newman. He objected to the hit, began yelling at line judge Mark Steinkerchner, and grabbed him around the waist to make contact.
He was called for a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty and immediately ejected.
"You're not supposed to touch a ref, I understand that," Smith said.
Smith, who had one catch for 18 yards, had a frustrating game and had erupted in protest one play earlier when Jake Delhomme didn't see him wide open in the middle of the field.
With Smith out, Delhomme looked to veteran Ricky Proehl. The two hooked up on a 35-yard touchdown pass with 2:32 to play to give Carolina a 20-17 lead.
But Bledsoe used long passes to Glenn and Keyshawn Johnson to move Dallas into scoring range, only to see Cundiff miss. As the Panthers celebrated, Cowboys players noticed the yellow flag on the ground where Cundiff lay under Peppers and began preparing for their second chance.
"When I looked out there and saw that flag on the field, I said 'OK, well, we're going to win,"' Bledsoe said.
Notes: Glenn made the game-winning catch with one hand -- he dislocated his thumb on his second catch of the game. ... Proehl finished with two catches for 104 yards and a touchdown. ... Peppers had three sacks. ... Cundiff made a 24-yard field goal and had a 32-yarder blocked. ... Bledsoe was sacked five times.