The Los Angeles Rams, angered by what they thought was a late hit that sidelined their starting quarterback and forced to rely on a reserve who entered the game with only 24 pro completions, beat the Atlanta Falcons, 37-35, today on Frank Corral's 25-yard field goal with 27 seconds left to play.
The Ram heroes were many. Besides Corral, the most notable was LeRoy Irvin. He returned two punts for touchdowns, going 75 yards in the first quarter and 84 yards in the fourth, just when it looked like the Falcons were home free, leading by eight points with less than nine minutes to play.
Third-year quarterback Jeff Rutledge came off the bench when Pat Haden suffered stretched ligaments in his ankle in the second quarter and directed the Rams on the winning drive in the game's final seconds. Atlanta lost its third straight and is 3-3.
"It was just 45 guys busting their butts even when it looked bad," said Ram Coach Ray Malavasi, whose team won its fourth straight and is 4-2. "We had a lot of confidence in Jeff Rutledge. We felt he could make the big plays."
The Rams had a 13-0 first-quarter lead after Irvin gave them their head start. The Falcons came back to lead, 21-13, on a 25-yard run by William Andrews (21 carries, 119 yards) on a fourth-and-one play, and two touchdown passes by quarterback Steve Bartkowski (17 of 38 for 217 yards and three touchdowns).
There were still eight minutes left in the second quarter, and the Rams were on the move. On second and 10 at midfield, Haden dropped back to pass, then started scrambling. Heading for the left sideline he pulled up and, off-balance, threw to Preston Dennard, who was open at the Falcon 15.
As Haden released, Falcon defensive end Wilson Faumuina plowed into him, helmet first, buckling Haden's legs when the helmet made contact just below the knees.
"I never saw what happened," Haden said. "I just got hit and felt a lot of pain. I asked the doctor what he thought while they were bringing out the stretcher and he said, 'I think it's a break.' I thought, 'The season's over.' "
Haden's teammates were thinking the same thing. Dennis Harrah, the Ram right guard, had to be held away from Faumuina. To a man, the Rams insisted the hit was late.
"It was disgusting," Harrah said. "You just don't do that kind of thing, it was flagrant. It's worse than punching someone in the head because you don't go for a guy's legs in this game. He was trying to hurt Pat. I've got no sympathy or understanding for something like that."
"I was just playing football, trying to make a tackle," Faumuina said. "I wasn't trying to hurt him and I'm glad it wasn't as bad as it seemed at first."
Rutledge replaced Haden and took the Rams the remaining 15 yards for the score, which came on a one-yard pass to Henry Childs and closed the gap to 21-20.
At halftime, the Rams learned that Haden's leg wasn't broken.
"We just all said, 'Thank God, now let's go win this game,' " defensive end Jack Youngblood said. "We were ticked off."
Rutledge, who was 11 for 20 for 130 yards, was struggling somewhat before Irvin's second return. It came with 8:23 left. The second year man from Kansas fielded John James' punt on his 16, dodged a tackler, cut up the middle, swiveled past two more men and was gone down the left sideline to bring the Rams back within a point, 35-34.
The Rams still trailed by that single point when they took over at their own 20 with 4:35 left. While Haden sat on an equipment bench wearing street clothes, Rutledge performed like a man who had been through this many times.
He hit Childs on three straight short passes to reach the 45. On third and 10, Rutledge stepped up and threw to Dennard at the 30 for a 20-yard gain. He connected with Dennard for nine more as the clock rolled under 1:30.
The Rams then stayed on the ground for four straight plays, reaching the eight before calling on Corral."I just blocked everything out and thought about the hold," Corral said. "I knew there was pressure, I just didn't admit it to myself."