PONTIAC, MICH., NOV. 4 -- At the end, Wayne Fontes cried and Joe Gibbs prayed. At the end, Detroit Lions linebacker Michael Cofer was so exhausted he had to be packed in ice and given fluids intravenously. Down the hall, a dirty and exhausted Washington Redskins center Jeff Bostic sat collapsed on an undersized stool in front of his locker.

This was the day the Redskins reached an interesting crossroads. From the heat and humidity of training camp to a couple of stinging defeats at the hands of the New York Giants, the Redskins this afternoon rose from the verge of a crushing loss to one of their most astounding victories, a 41-38 knockout of the Detroit Lions before 69,326 in the Silverdome.

They matched their greatest comeback ever, rallying from 21 points behind in the second half as quarterback Jeff Rutledge came off the bench. The Redskins (5-3) trailed 35-14 with 10:37 left in the third quarter and by 38-21 as the fourth quarter began.

They scored 17 straight points in the fourth quarter, including 14 in the final 5:48, tying the game on Rutledge's improbable 12-yard quarterback draw with 18 seconds left in regulation and winning on Chip Lohmiller's 34-yard field goal 9:10 into overtime.

It was a routine end to an astounding day, a day when the Redskins found a new No. 1 quarterback -- Rutledge -- and a day when they tied and broke a slew of offensive records: 39 first downs, 674 yards offense and 43 pass completions.

It was a day when they may have proven a lot of things about themselves and a day when they proved that despite a couple of bitter losses to the Giants, they still may be special in 1990.

"My prayer is that this game will make us," Coach Joe Gibbs said. "We've been kind of herky-jerky all year. Maybe this game will get us going for the long haul. There were 45 guys that played their guts out. We've had different teams all of a sudden make their move after a game like this."

First, there's Rutledge. Gibbs benched Stan Humphries after his third interception and sent in the career backup, who responded with the best day of his life, completing 30 of 42 passes for 363 yards and a touchdown.

Gibbs quickly announced that he still had faith in Humphries, that Humphries may yet do big things for the Redskins, but that Rutledge would start next week, thereby becoming his fifth starting quarterback in the five years since Joe Theismann broke his leg.

Rutledge came into the game and started firing, hitting his first eight passes and 14 of 19 on the final two scoring drives. In one afternoon, he passed for more yards than in eight of his 11 NFL seasons, and as wide receiver Gary Clark said: "It was not like he came in and gave a rah-rah speech. He doesn't have to. He's a veteran and he's been around. We just said, 'Let's keep at it.' "

"Funny how things work out," Rutledge said. "It wasn't all me. When you have receivers like we have and you get them involved, they'll make great plays. And you can't overlook the line."

But he was only part of the story. There was veteran offensive tackle Joe Jacoby coming off the bench for the first time in three weeks and playing credibly in place of injured Jim Lachey against sackmaster Cofer.

There was the Posse. A week after its worst day (four catches), the trio had one of its best, catching 32 passes for 432 yards and a touchdown. Art Monk tied his club record with 13 catches, Ricky Sanders had 11 and Clark 8.

There was a defense that finally stopped Detroit's run-and-shoot in the final tense minutes. The entire day had been a roll of the dice and the last one came in the second half when the defensive line was told to forget about Barry Sanders and the draw play, and concentrate on getting pressure on the quarterback.

Finally, there was Gibbs, who made perhaps the single gutsiest call of his career by sending a slow and not-too-nimble Rutledge up the middle on third and five with no timeouts remaining in the final seconds.

The play had been added to the game plan on Saturday after Gibbs had seen a couple of other teams have success with it, and it caught the Lions flat-footed.

The Redskins could have packed and folded their tents a dozen times, especially when Barry Sanders broke up the middle for a 45-yard Lions touchdown run to make it 35-14 with 10:37 remaining in the third quarter.

"No one ever thought it was over," Redskins tight end Don Warren said. "I guarantee you that. I've been around here 12 years and we've been in some situations like this before. You just keep plugging. That's what we preach to each other. You never know what's going to happen."

The Redskins didn't know, but surely must have guessed when Humphries' second pass of the day bounced out of Clark's hands and into Cofer's at the Washington 33.

Lions quarterback Rodney Peete threw a 33-yard touchdown that took a weird route, bouncing off Robert Clark's hands, over the fingertips of safety Todd Bowles and into the arms of a waiting Robert Johnson. Scoring drive: 20 seconds.

The Redskins tied it, 7-7, at the end of the first quarter on an eight-yard run by Gerald Riggs (89 yards on 21 carries), but the Lions needed 2 1/2 minutes to go 80 yards in seven plays. The Redskins chased Peete, who scrambled up the middle for 37, pitched to Barry Sanders for gains of five and five and finally kept the ball for 10 yards.

That's when Humphries made his first real mistake, throwing behind Monk and into the hands of William White, who returned it 34 yards for a touchdown and a 21-7 lead with 12:59 left in the first half.

Each team added a touchdown before halftime, but on Washington's first possession of the second half, Humphries made another mistake, overthrowing Gary Clark and finding safety Bennie Blades. Gibbs turned to Rutledge.

Almost before Rutledge had taken a warm-up throw, Barry Sanders broke up the middle for his 45-yard score and a 35-14 lead.

"I told {Stan} to catch his breath, stand by me and be ready to go back in," Gibbs said. "Hey, that happens with young quarterbacks. I felt it was at a point where Stan needed a breath of fresh air."

Rutledge came in and got the Redskins going quickly, leading a 63-yard drive to close the gap to 35-21. But Rich Karlis kicked a 26-yard field goal as the third quarter ended to make it 38-21.

This day, the Lions lost Peete to a pulled hamstring when ex-Lion Eric Williams bowled him over. And under Bob Gagliano they were unable to control the ball in the fourth quarter.

They didn't even give the ball to Barry Sanders, who carried 10 times for 100 yards the first three quarters and didn't touch the ball in the fourth.

Fontes refused to answer questions, saying only that his team "had played its guts out . . . had a great effort. It's a shame it got away from us."

It began getting away as the fourth quarter opened with Rutledge leading a nine-play, 58-yard drive that ended with Lohmiller's 38-yard field goal with 11:59 left.

Then after the Lions again couldn't move the ball, the Redskins started their real comeback with 80 yards and 8:41 to go. They got it in seven plays, with Rutledge completing five of six passes and Gary Clark scoring on a 34-yard catch and run with 5:48 remaining.

The Lions again couldn't move and again made no attempt to run out the clock, using up only two minutes. Jim Arnold's 52-yard punt backed the Redskins to their 15 with 3:24 left.

Thus started their tying drive. Rutledge completed eight of 12 and faced third down three times. Once he threw to Monk for eight. Another time he threw to Sanders for five. Another time Kelvin Bryant ran for four.

The Redskins took their last timeout with 24 seconds left after Gary Clark's five-yard catch at the 12. Then came the draw.

"He had the option if he saw the middle packed," Gibbs said. "He could have audibled to a pass."

Monk called heads, and the Redskins won the toss to start the overtime. Each team had a possession before the Redskins started at their 10 and drove 73 yards. Rutledge started with a four-yard pass to Ricky Sanders, then was sacked by Dan Owens for a nine-yard loss.

Rutledge then completed what may have been his biggest pass of the day, going down the left sideline to Monk, who beat LeRoy Irvin on a 40-yarder to the Washington 45. Bryant caught a screen pass for 11 and Monk caught a six-yarder.

When Ricky Sanders caught an eight-yarder, the Redskins were down to the 30, and five plays later, Rutledge took the snap and dived to the middle of the field to put Lohmiller in perfect position.