By Jim Thomas
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
When the contact was made near the Rams' goal line and the flag fell to the turf, one thought went through Leonard Little's mind.
"I was hoping it wasn't pass interference," the defensive end said.
But it was.
"I was like, 'Man, don't let this game end like this,'" said cornerback Tye Hill, who had coverage on Detroit's Az-Zahir Hakim on the play. "I was timing my contact. I saw the ball coming. I was just trying to get my hand in front of it."
While trying to do all that, Hill never saw teammate Will Witherspoon tip Jon Kitna's deep pass with 9 seconds to play. "I'm going to be honest," Hill said. "I didn't see him hit it."
But Witherspoon did, and it's the play that saved the Rams in Sunday's 41-34 victory over Detroit. Because Witherspoon tipped the ball, the pass-interference call was waved off. (Hill's contact with Hakim was made after the ball was tipped.)
It was an impressive play by an impressive linebacker. There aren't many who play Witherspoon's position in the NFL who can get that deep in coverage, that quickly. But he did.
"It's just part of the coverage on that one," Witherspoon shrugged. "What else can you do? You've got to take your shot and get in front of it."
Ho-hum. Just another boring day at the office for Witherspoon and the Rams.
"Did someone say 'boring'?" Little said half an hour later in the Rams' locker room. "I'm still sweating from that one."
It was a wild ride to be sure. Love him or hate him, you've got to admit, "Mad Mike" Martz was at his play-calling best Sunday in his return to St. Louis as Detroit's offensive coordinator.
The Lions topped 30 points for only the second time since their 2003 season opener. There were moments when Kitna -- the Detroit quarterback -- looked like Kurt Warner. Vintage Kurt Warner. And when Lions wide receivers Roy Williams and Mike Furrey looked like Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt.
But accept no substitutes. There is only one Bruce. And one Holt. And they were both playing for Martz's former team Sunday. Bruce got a big hug from Martz before the game. Martz got a big hug from Holt after the game.
In between hugs, Bruce and Holt both caught a touchdown pass and both topped 100 yards receiving. Bruce finished with seven catches for 100 yards; Holt totaled six for 102. It was the first time the tandem topped 100 yards on the same day since the second game of the 2004 season, against Atlanta.
"I'm not calling anybody old, but I used to watch a lot of guys in this offensive unit play when I was a kid," new Rams offensive guard Adam Goldberg said. "Watching those guys make plays, they've been doing it for, what, 35 years?"
Close, but not quite that long. It was only fitting, perhaps, that Bruce would spoil Martz's homecoming. Bruce's 5-yard TD reception with 1 minute 56 seconds to play erased a 34-33 Detroit lead. Bruce also caught a 2-point conversion pass from Marc Bulger to account for the game's final points.
Rams fans, Rams media and many Rams veterans have seen many game-winning TD catches from Bruce over the years. But it was a first for Martz's successor in St. Louis, Scott Linehan.
"I'm happy for Isaac," Linehan said. "Like all these other guys, he's been kind of hanging in with our (offensive) transition. Trying to see how they fit in, and what we're trying to get done. Nobody's complained."
That transition hit high gear Sunday. After scoring only 47 points -- total -- in their first three games, the Rams topped 40 points Sunday for the first time since a 48-17 victory over Minnesota in 2003.
The Rams were en route to a division title; Linehan was then offensive coordinator for the Vikings. But that was then. This is now.
These are Linehan's Rams, and he won a shootout with Martz by loosening the reins on the offense. Bulger threw a season-high 42 times and, in his best performance of the season, threw for a season-high 328 yards with three TD passes.
"I'm really proud of him," Linehan said. "That was a heck of a performance. ... It's a good thing, too. Because I was acting like an idiot on the sideline a couple of times. And he just stayed calm."
Showing more game-day emotion than at any other time in his Rams tenure, Linehan went bonkers after referee Larry Nemmers' crew assessed roughing-the-passer and unsportsmanlike conduct penalties against Little on the same play in the third quarter.
Why so heated, Coach?
"They marked off 30 yards, and they never explained to me why it was a 30-yard penalty," Linehan said. "It doesn't do any good to holler and complain. ... I've got to chill out."
There was no chilling Sunday, until one play after Witherspoon's tip and the pass interference that wasn't. Kitna and the Lions had one more shot at the end zone on fourth and 3 from the St. Louis 37, but misfired.
The Rams got the ball back with 2 seconds remaining. Kneel down. Game over. Rams victory. First-place tie at 3-1 in the NFC West with Seattle. A lot of fun, right?
"It's not fun," running back Steven Jackson said. "A win is a win ... but I'd much rather have it be a nice blowout."