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Believe It Or Not: Strange finish favors Rams
By Jim Thomas
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
Rams Big Red
GLENDALE, ARIZ. — First the ball squirted out and onto that retractable grass field at Cardinals Stadium. Then, Arizona defensive end Antonio Smith emerged from the pile with the football. And then the celebration, with the sellout crowd going absolutely nuts.
For Marc Bulger, this was "Twilight" Zone material. He stood all by his lonesome on the Rams' sideline. As the clock ticked down, and Arizona maneuvered for a game-winning field goal, it was as if Bulger's football life flashed in front of him.
"Everything came on me at that point," Bulger said. "You work all year round. You know how hard everyone in this (locker) room works. And the organization, the accountants -- everyone.
"And then to lose the ballgame. That's a big deal. One-16th of the season gone because of one stupid little ball-handling thing."
But that's not what happened. Because just 16 seconds after Bulger's botched fumble with 2 minutes 3 seconds remaining in the game, Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner amazingly did the same thing. Warner's eighth fumble of the season came on a botched exchange with center Alex Stepanovich. Linebacker Will Witherspoon fell on the ball, preserving a 16-14 St. Louis victory.
"I didn't have a chance to take a step," Witherspoon said. "The ball was there ... just right there. So I just jumped on the pile to get on top of it. And that's where the end of the story is."
Well, not exactly.
It's rare enough for a close game to feature a botched fumble in the final two minutes by both starting quarterbacks. But the ending got even weirder. Arizona had a timeout remaining, so the Rams couldn't quite run out the clock following the Warner fumble.
Matt Turk punted the ball away with 5 seconds left with Troy Walters fielding the football with a fair catch as time expired. There was an offsides penalty against Arizona on the play, so the game was over. Right?
Uh, no. For a few minutes, mass confusion reigned. Here's what was going through offensive guard Adam Timmerman's head at the time:
"Whose ball is it? Is it the offense? Are we going to punt again? What's the deal here?" Timmerman said. "That was weird."
Under NFL rules, a team can attempt an uncontested free kick after a fair catch at any point in the game. This is so even if time expires at the end of the fair-catch play, as was the case here.
When the Rams originally declined the penalty, it was explained to them by the officiating crew that declining would allow Arizona to attempt a free kick. So instead of giving St. Louisan Neil Rackers a chance at a 77-yard -- that's right -- 77-yard desperation field goal, the Rams accepted the penalty, took a kneel-down, and got out of Dodge with a road victory against a division rival and a 2-1 record.
"We're keeping it interesting, aren't we," coach Scott Linehan shrugged, as he walked off the field.
"That's the craziest game I've ever been a part of," left tackle Orlando Pace said.
But in the NFL, you accept all gifts, no questions asked.
Until that Warner fumble, it appeared that the Rams were in the process of squandering what should have been an easy victory. After a slow start, the passing game finally clicked.
Bulger completed 21 of 31 passes for 309 yards and a touchdown -- his first 300-yard game of the season. Torry Holt caught eight for 120 yards and the TD -- his first 100-yard receving game of '06.
From midway through the second quarter until 4½ minutes into the third, Bulger completed 11 straight passes. Arizona safety Adrian Wilson, who ended Bulger's season with a vicious sack last Nov. 20, was held in check.
But once again, the Rams couldn't finish off drives. They had only that one TD, three Jeff Wilkins field goals, and a 16-7 lead in the fourth quarter before Arizona drove 87 yards in 16 plays for a touchdown on a 6-yard run by Edgerrin James.
That narrowed St. Louis' lead to 16-14, but with the ball at their 20 and just 4:13 left to play, the Rams needed only a couple of first downs to run out the clock. They got one first down, but then came the Bulger fumble.
"I would not have brought this up if we'd have lost, but I did jam up my (index) finger pretty good early in the second quarter," Bulger said. "It's no excuse. I'm just trying to think of how it happened. It just felt like there was Vaseline on it. When the ball came out, I couldn't believe it myself."
No one could. Two running plays by James got the ball to the St. Louis 18. The Rams were out of timeouts with 1:47 to play. Right there, Rackers would have attempted a 36-yard field goal. Rackers has missed only four of 47 field goals since the start of the 2005 season.
"Right, right, right," Rams cornerback Fakhir Brown said. "Once the time started ticking and they got inside the 20, I was thinking that they were going to kneel it and kick a field goal. I was glad that they tried to run it, and we got the fumble."
So was Bulger, although it was tough to see it come at the expense of his friend Warner.
"I told him (afterwards), 'I know how you feel. Because I was honestly feeling the same thing,' " Bulger said. "We both just had the same thing happen."
On this day strange ... but true.