- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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SEATTLE -- Five weeks ago, Nate Burleson looked like a $49 million goat, who instead turned out to be the most unexpected hero. By being called for an illegal formation instead of a false start in the final seconds of the Seahawks-Rams game in St. Louis, Burleson saved Seattle a 10-second run-off penalty, giving Josh Brown the chance to kick a game-winning 54-yard field goal as time expired.
On Sunday in a steady downpour in Seattle, Burleson eliminated any confusion about his role. He made the game-saving 90-yard punt return for a touchdown with 8:19 left that put the Seahawks in position to beat and, just as important, sweep the Rams.
How the Seahawks got to Brown's game-winning field goal this week (a 38-yarder) involved two goats in Rams colors.
"I don't know if I was a hero in the last Rams game because honestly I thought I lost it for a second. Tears were welling up in my eyes," Burleson said. "Today, though, I'm not the hero. The heroes were the guys blocking for me and Josh Brown."
The goats Sunday were Rams coach Scott Linehan and Rams guard Richie Incognito. Linehan made the boneheaded decision to go for it on fourth-and-a long 1 instead of settling for a likely sure-thing field goal after winning a coach's challenge early in the fourth quarter.
It looked as though the Rams had taken a 19-14 lead when Jeff Wilkins kicked a 35-yard field goal, but just before the ball was snapped, Linehan threw his red challenge flag at a sideline official. Turns out Kevin Curtis made a catch about a yard and a half short of a first down at the Seahawks' 12½-yard line.
Instead of trying the field goal again -- this time it would have been no more than a 30-yarder and just for the record, Wilkins was 11-for-11 from inside 40 yards entering the game -- Linehan went for the first down. The play was a disaster. Fullback Paul Smith didn't hear the play call in which he was supposed to float into a short pass route to force a Seahawks defender into covering him low. Smith just stayed in the backfield, messing up the play. Two Seahawks defenders then had coverage on the Rams' main target, tight end Joe Klopfenstein. With little open, quarterback Marc Bulger tried to make a tight throw that went incomplete.
Trailing by only two points instead of five, the Seahawks needed only a field goal to take the lead instead of a touchdown, easing their margin of difficulty to win the game. That difference became very apparent when Incognito made boneheaded decision No. 2.
Rams halfback Steven Jackson answered Burleson's touchdown return with a 14-yard touchdown run to give the Rams a 22-21 lead with 2:30 left in the game. Someone on the Seahawks' defense ripped off Jackson's helmet. Several Rams blockers came to Jackson's defense, but Incognito wasn't incognito when it came to the officials. He was aggressive enough in his defense of Jackson to draw a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that forced Wilkins to kick off from the Rams 15.
To make matters worse, Bulger couldn't find an open receiver on the two-point attempt so the Rams had only a one-point lead.
The Seahawks ended up getting the ball at the Rams 49 after a 33-yard return by Josh Scobey. Backup quarterback Seneca Wallace drove the Seahawks 29 yards in seven plays to set up Brown's game-winning 38-yard field goal with nine seconds left in the game.
"Just another day at the office," a soaked but relieved Mike Holmgren said after the game. "My goodness, when we play the games, it's been that type of game the last few times we played them, either at their place or here. They compete like crazy and so do our guys."
By losing, the Rams all but ended any hopes of catching the Seahawks for the NFC West title. At 6-3, the Seahawks lead the division by two games and they have the tiebreaker over the Rams by virtue of the two-game sweep. Worse, the Rams dropped into a tie for second with a 49ers team that beat them in their one meeting so far, technically putting the Rams in third place.
And worse yet, the Rams are in the midst of a four-game losing streak that has involved heartbreaking losses. To top it off, they also lost left tackle Orlando Pace for the season with a torn triceps muscle suffered in the second quarter.
"Yeah, we are in a rut," Bulger said. "At the same time, if we were on a four-game win streak, my approach wouldn't change. I try to stay consistent and this is the only way you can do it in the NFL. You can't have the peaks and valleys. I think that most of the guys on this team understand that and come out to work to get better. The young guys that don't understand that and want to pack it in, that might work for this year, but they won't last more than a year or two in the NFL."
Linehan explained his decision to go for it on fourth down instead of kicking the short field goal.
"The replay was happening right before the clock was running down," Linehan said. "You know they were right about him catching it. It wasn't real clear exactly as to how close it was going to be. The idea was that if we had gotten to fourth and short, we would consider going for it because if we score a touchdown on that drive, we make it a two-score game and it would be a pretty good situation for us. It didn't work out good for us because we didn't convert. We certainly could have used the points at the end of the game."
Chalk it up to a rookie mistake by a first-year head coach.
What's bad for the Rams was that the Seahawks were as vulnerable and beatable as they could be. Technically, they were down five starters -- quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, halfback Shaun Alexander, defensive tackle Marcus Tubbs, center Robbie Tobeck and right tackle Sean Locklear. When he arrived at Qwest Field Sunday morning, Holmgren got a sick feeling in his stomach when he found out Tobeck couldn't play because of the flu, which forced him onto the inactive list.
"The trainers are starting to not even look me in the eyes around here," Holmgren said. "But like I told [general manager] Tim Ruskell, I told him about Tobeck when I saw him before the game, and we just said that the next guy had to step up. Chris Spencer has to play. Ray Willis was active and he had to get ready to play. That's really all you can do."
To the Seahawks' credit, they played hard despite the adversity. For the second consecutive game, Seattle defensive coordinator John Marshall did a nice job of mixing blitzes with four-man rushes to put pressure on Bulger. Even though the defense let Bulger move from 20-yard line to 20-yard line, they tightened things up in the red zone, allowing one touchdown and three field goals.
Wallace did a nice job of filling in for Hasselbeck, completing 15 of 23 passes for 161 yards and two touchdowns. Despite a sore shoulder and a banged up body, halfback Maurice Morris did a nice job filling in for Alexander, rushing for 124 yards on 21 carries. Now, the Seahawks have confidence in a backup quarterback who is 2-1.
"It means a lot," Wallace said of having the confidence of his teammates. "Once you step into that huddle and everybody is looking at you and they are saying 'Let's go,' that's going to fire everybody up. That's how they were in the huddle. They knew it was crunch time."
Burleson was the ultimate player in crunch time. Burleson, who signed a seven-year, $49 million restricted free agent offer sheet after Steve Hutchinson signed for a similar number with the Vikings, struggled early in the season and eventually lost his starting job to Deion Branch.
Now, Burleson only plays about 12 to 15 snaps a game in the three-receiver package. A few weeks ago, Holmgren asked him if he wanted to return punts. He accepted without hesitation.
"It's tough," Burleson said when asked how it felt not to start. "Obviously, as a competitor, you want to touch the ball. With everybody doing so well, I can't complain. We are winning games. I feel like I'm the ultimate team player."
As a receiver, Burleson has only eight catches for 125 yards, but he's been involved in two plays that beat the Rams. He was a hero with his punt return. He was a hero in St. Louis for not being called for a false start.
"Heroes come in many shapes and sizes," Burleson said.
They sure do.
John Clayton is a senior writer at ESPN.com.