- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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SEATTLE -- Cam Cleeland's spectacular 17-yard game-winning touchdown catch with 2:11 remaining in St. Louis' 27-20 victory on Saturday summed up why the Rams beat the Seahawks in this wild-card playoff game.
The Rams finished the season dealing with adversity better than the Seahawks, and Cleeland is the symbol of Rams fortitude. Last May, Cleeland, a Seattle native, was driving near his offseason home in Mt. Vernon, Wash., when he saw a car on fire near a tree and the driver trapped by the steering wheel. Cleeland jumped out of his car, told his wife to call 911 and pulled on the hot door of the vehicle, hoping to rescue the passenger.
At the time, he was out of work with no offers, a free agent awaiting a chance to return to a Rams team that wasn't calling. His hands burned from the heat, but he couldn't rescue the victim. While they awaited a fire truck, Cleeland tried to make the passenger as comfortable as possible. Unfortunately, the passenger died on the way to the hospital, and Cleeland was shaken up for a month. Later on, the Rams called and signed him to a minimum-salary contract.
"It's unbelievable," Cleeland said on the field after the victory. "I can't even express how much this means. To fight through all the adversities I have and be able to do this before my family and friends, this means so much. This is amazing."
Cleeland, a backup tight end with only seven regular-season catches, streaked down the middle of the field on a play-action pass play. Marc Bulger caught the Seahawks in an outside blitz. Cleeland was facing man coverage and wasn't going to be stopped. The touchdown enabled the Rams to be the first team in NFL history with an 8-8 record to win a playoff game.
Adversity, though, thy name is Rams.
Assistant head coach Joe Vitt, his life in turmoil for the past two weeks with a sick wife, directed the defensive play-calling from the sidelines like a smooth traffic cop. Linda, his wife, was hospitalized with a blood clot in her lung. Only last Thursday did she leave the hospital, hoping that blood thinners would do the trick. Vitt had been sleepless for two weeks of worrying and trying to coach the Rams defense.
Then there's Bulger. He's considered Mr. Cool, but Saturday's events tested his demeanor to the max. The communication system in his helmet kept fading in and out. Considering the long play calls that are delivered from Martz through those headsets, most quarterbacks would throw up their hands and just go to hand signals.
Instead, he went through timeouts like chewing gum and tried to make the best of the situation.
"It was just in and out a couple of times, and you know, you get two words of a 15 word play and you try to fix it," Bulger said. "Once you get to 15 seconds on the play clock, they cut it out, so you don't know if it's your equipment or 15 seconds. "
Bulger called timeouts twice in the first 3½ minutes. He went over to coach Mike Martz and politely suggested getting the plays in a little earlier. That's not easy, though. Martz is emotional. When he gets into a play-calling rhythm, he fires off adjustments and plays like crazy and on Saturday, he was on a roll.
Bulger opened the game by completing four straight passes for 79 yards, including a 15-yard touchdown to Torry Holt. Often, he only got a portion of the play calls. So, as he stepped into the huddle, he sorted out the play and made the call to the players. Few knew the difference. That's dealing with adversity.
"If you could see him on the sideline," Martz said of Bulger. "If you want somebody in a foxhole when it counts, that's him. He's somebody to take that last shot at the buzzer to win the game. If you need that, you'd want it to be Marc. It's just pure and simple, you want that guy in the game. That is his personality. That is one of the things that makes him different and unique than most every other quarterback. He is very special in that respect."
For Bulger, it was his first playoff victory, and it probably won't be his last. He completed 18 of 32 passes for 313 yards and two touchdowns. In the second half, the Seahawks offense and Matt Hasselbeck got on a roll. A year ago, both quarterbacks were Pro Bowlers. Hasselbeck regained form and rallied from an 11-point deficit to take a 20-17 lead with 13:43 left in regulation. Bulger responded with an 11-play, 60-yard game-tying field goal drive.
After a Rams blitz forced a third-down incompletion from Hasselbeck, Bulger got the ball back and simply won the game. The second half featured only three Rams offensive possessions (excluding the final series when St. Louis got the ball back with 10 seconds remaining). Bulger executed a 12-play drive for a field goal, an 11-play drive for a field goal and a game-winning 76-yard drive in which he made big completion after big completion.
"Marc is very calm, very cool," Martz said. "He never gets flustered. He is never rattled. He understands exactly what happened. He gets angry about a couple of plays we could have made and didn't. But he has a short memory about all of that stuff. He is always talking about what they are doing. We had a real constructive conversation going on about adjustments we wanted to do."
The Rams had a third-and-2 at their 32-yard line with 4:36 left. The score was tied at 20-20. The game was on the line and the Rams were out of timeouts.
The Rams have so much motion that it sometimes confuses them, but Bulger motioned the Rams into a big play. Wide receiver Shaun McDonald motioned into the backfield and eventually in the slot, a role normally reserved for Marshall Faulk. Seahawks defenders had never seen him in that formation, and didn't pick him up. Plus, earlier long passes called by Martz cleared out the middle of the field and had safeties playing in deep zones.
McDonald went 31 yards almost untouched to the Seahawks' 37. On the next play, Martz made a similar call for Kevin Curtis that went for 13 yards. Two Faulk running plays were called, and the Seahawks defense was lost.
Finally, on a third-and-3, Bulger hit Cleeland on a play-action to win the game.
"I don't think we have ever ran that play in a game," McDonald said of his 31-yard gain on third down. "It came up just how Coach Martz drew it up. It was perfect execution and the perfect call. I line up on the left and come in motion and kind of come out of the backfield. It's kind of like a swing route. If I am open, he puts it on me."
Adversity. The Rams have been dealing with it for weeks. Guard Tom Nutten played with a torn medial collateral ligament and gave it everything he had until it became too painful by the fourth quarter. Halfback Steven Jackson hurt his ribs in the first half. Though he was hurting, Jackson played and gave it his best.
Martz, under tremendous pressure after the team fell to 6-8 and needed two wins and some help to make the playoffs, called a flawless game. Bulger worked magnificently in keeping the offense moving. Defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy played on a foot that was broken early in the season and needs x-rays after every game. His play gets better each week.
"I'm just so excited about the way we competed," Martz said. "I'm just so excited about the intensity and the passion in which they played. That's just something we continue to build on. We had a terrific win last week. The thing that is remarkable is that you go back a few weeks, and you go two short weeks. For these guys to come out and play like they did, I could not be more proud of the coaching and a bunch of the players. It's just a moment for all of us."
In 13 days, the Rams have beaten the Eagles, Jets and now the Seahawks for a third time. They have mastered adversity and will play another week.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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