- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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SEATTLE -- The NFC West baton appeared to be passed Sunday. The Seahawks held a 17-point lead, and their defense appeared to have its spikes on the throats of a proud Rams franchise that has won or shared the NFC West title for four of the past five years.
Seahawks linebacker Anthony Simmons celebrated after some of his second-half stops on Marshall Faulk runs. A re-energized record Qwest Field crowd, experiencing its biggest game in more than a decade, cheered so loud that Marc Bulger burned two timeouts in three plays during the third quarter. The Rams appeared to be sheered.
But a funny thing happened while the Seahawks were trying to bury a team that appeared to be on its last breath. The Rams caught their breath, rallied from a 17-point deficit in the final 8:38 and scored 24 points in a little less than 12 minutes to beat the Seahawks 33-27. The Seahawks held the baton but couldn't cross the finish line.
"Did my coach manage a good game?" Faulk said as he ran off the field. "Tell everyone about the way he managed this game!"
Okay, I will. The advantage of being a dominant team in a division is depth of experience, both good and bad. Big game experience is a continuous learning experience. The Seahawks were victimized by it Sunday. They learned how to come back in Green Bay last year to almost win an overtime game, but Al Harris returned an interception for a touchdown and the Packers won. From that game, the Seahawks focused, started 3-0 this year and held a 27-10 lead over the Rams.
The Rams have taken their licks. Mike Martz was criticized for going for the field goal in the home playoff loss to the Panthers that ended last season. At the time, people wondered whether everyone had enough confidence in Bulger. Though the Rams cut Kurt Warner and rewarded Bulger with a big contract extension, the seed planted from that playoff loss sprouted Sunday.
Martz and the Rams have confidence in Bulger, who is now 21-6 as a starter and 3-2 this year. The confidence showed in Martz's play-calling. There was no panic. For weeks Martz endured the barbs of throwing 75 percent of the time in two losses and not being balanced enough.
The Seahawks led 24-7 at halftime. They had 44 plays to the Rams' 24. They outgained the Rams in the first half, 306 to 122. So, naturally, you would think the Rams would spread the field with receivers and pass the ball to open the second half. But after the intermission, the Rams came out running. Of the first 10 plays of the second half, Martz called nine running plays. The next drive netted only a field goal after 13 reasonably conservative plays.
"We tried to mix in more of the running game because they were up the field so bad on our tackles," Martz said. "We didn't try to get it back in chunks, which is more my personality each and every snap. But it was the right thing to do. We just tried to manage it as well as we could."
About a week or two into the season, Martz installed a triangle in the middle of the locker room that focused on the word resolve. In big games, the Rams -- whether under Martz or Dick Vermeil -- had resolve. The old cliché is big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games. Faulk, Isaac Bruce, Torry Holt and a few others are holdouts from the great Rams teams.
The Rams churned out 23 plays to the Seahawks' six in the third quarter and cut the lead by only three to 24-10. But they had won the quarter. They were focused. Guys like Shaun McDonald, Kevin Curtis, Steven Jackson and Brandon Manumaleuna were making plays as confidently as Faulk, Holt and Bruce.
"You heard names today you normally didn't here," Holt said.
But the one name that came up with the biggest performance was Bulger. When it comes to fiery leadership, Bulger is like a wet towel. His game is efficiency and calmness. Even though Bulger won a division title in his first full year as a starter, he grew Sunday as a leader of this team.
The biggest growth spurt came in the final eight minutes. Up to that point he had been sacked twice, hurried more than 17 times, thrown three interceptions and had four passes deflected at the line. His passing numbers weren't impressive either -- heading into the final fast and furious flurry, Bulger was 14-of-26 for 123 yards. Still, he was in control.
"All right, Marc," Martz said to Bulger along the sidelines. "Don't take any sacks. Just keep moving the chains and get the ball in the end zone."
"Okay," Bulger replied.
Though not fiery, Bulger saved his flamboyance for the plays. On a third-and-13, he fired a 20-yard completion to Bruce and gained another 15 yards when defensive tackle Rocky Bernard hit his face mask. He caught McDonald for a 24-yard completion three plays later; before long he fired a rocket into the end zone and Manumaleuna made a circus catch for an 8-yard touchdown. It was 27-17 with 5:34 left in regulation.
The Seahawks followed with a three-and-out. McDonald returned the next punt 39 yards to the Seahawks' 41 and Bulger hit Curtis for a 41-yard touchdown on the next play when he was able to get behind safety Terreal Bierria. With 3:30 left, the Rams trailed 27-24.
"I was just amazed at Marc's composure, the way that he was able to move around the pocket and make incredible throws," Martz said. "He is just a terrific player."
Once again, the Seahawks' offense stalled. Bulger got the ball back at his 36 with 1:14 left. A 27-yard completion to Bruce and a 16-yard completion to Dane Looker put the Rams in field-goal position. Jeff Wilkins made the 36-yarder to send the game into overtime.
Once the Rams won the coin toss, you sensed the game was over. Bulger was on fire. In the second half he ended up completing 16-of-28 passes for 273 yards and three touchdowns against a Seahawks defense that ranked first coming into the game.
The gamesmanship was reaching a climax in overtime. The Seahawks resorted to a slot blitz that they hadn't used before. On a third-and-6 at the Rams' 33 in overtime, Seahawks cornerback Bobby Taylor blitzed but Bulger responded with a sightly adjusted slant route they had never used before. Holt grabbed it for a 13-yard gain and a first down.
Taylor tried to blitz again from the slot on a third-and-8 from the Rams' 48. Holt was covered on the slant. McDonald had a slower Bierria -- a safety -- covering him man-to-man. In a move that stunned the usually overly-aggressive Martz, Bulger fired the "nine-route" completion to McDonald to win the game 33-27 with a 52-yard touchdown.
"I threw it because it was open," Bulger said. "We had run it three plays before. Common sense tells you that they are going to expect it, which they were, and they were going to jump on it, which they were. Film study tells you that the safeties were sitting."
The Seahawks were crestfallen. The Rams were revived. Even though they trail the Seahawks by a half-game, the division is still theirs for the taking.
"Last I checked, we won the West last year," Faulk said. "That's all I know. I'm a factual person."
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
With Marc Bulger leading a huge second-half comeback, the Rams reminded everyone that they're still in the NFC West hunt.