PONTIAC, MICH. -- You make the call. There are 24 seconds left in the game, ball on the 12-yard line with no timeouts and you have to score a touchdown to salvage the game and, perhaps, the season. The backup quarterback is playing, and he's so old his age is measured in dog years. The last time anyone called on him to be mobile was the 1970s.

If you're the Detroit Lions, you devote every resource at your disposal to cover Monk and Clark and Sanders and Bryant. You pretty much rule out one thing: Jeff Rutledge running the ball. That's just what Joe Gibbs, the old slickster, was thinking.

If there are 75 quarterbacks in the NFL, there are 74 you'd call on to run the ball before you'd ask Jeff Rutledge. So, while Rutledge trotted over to the sideline, having had the best game of his natural life in one quarter, Gibbs took about a millisecond or so to come up with the play.

Quarterback draw.

Jeff Rutledge on the quarterback draw.

The Redskins didn't put it into the game plan until Saturday. "And not with me in mind," Rutledge said later.

Gibbs said he hesitated after calling the play, but not for long. "Jeff's probably the last guy in the world to run that play," he reasoned. "Sometimes that's why things work."

Bennie Blades, Detroit's free safety, was shaking his head an hour after the game. He and his teammates had been in man-to-man defense, furiously covering every potential receiver. That makes you vulnerable to a quarterback draw. "We never saw it on film from them and we never expected it," Blades said. "We should have expected the unexpected."

Gibbs said the play wasn't as risky as it appeared because if the Lions even looked like they knew it was coming, Rutledge would simply audible to a pass play. He didn't need to. Defenders scattered just as Gibbs thought they would, leaving a gaping hole in the middle.

Rutledge took two steps back and ran forward 12 yards for the touchdown, flipping into the end zone on his head. The extra point tied the game, 38-38. Really it won the game. The forlorn, dejected Lions had to go into overtime because Rutledge had come off the bench to rally the Redskins to one of their greatest comebacks, and everyone in the Silverdome knew the Lions had no chance once it went overtime.

There were too many Washington heroes to count. Art Monk's 13 catches tied his career high and team record. None was more important than the 40-yard completion in OT that took the Redskins from third and 15 at their 5 to near midfield. Eric Williams, a Lion two months ago, knocked ex-teammate Rodney Peete out of the game, rendering the Detroit offense useless down the stretch. Joe Jacoby came in for injured Jim Lachey. Gerald Riggs ran, Kelvin Bryant caught.

But it's all moot if Rutledge doesn't come off the bench and play the game of his 12-year career. He completed 30 of 42 passes for 363 yards. There were seven full seasons he didn't throw that many passes.

When Rutledge came on, four minutes into the third quarter, the game was over, right? The Redskins trailed, 35-14. Detroit's run-and-shoot was, as Gibbs said, "eating us up." So were Stan Humphries' interceptions. It would have been a crushing loss. Being unable to beat the 49ers and Giants -- the two best teams in the NFL -- is one thing; losing to the Lions is another.

There was nothing to suggest Rutledge would create such a ruckus. He got in last week against the Giants, his old team, but it was late and he didn't do much. And all week in practice as the scout-team quarterback, all he did was "try to run this silly run-and-shoot, with everybody running every which way," he said.

But few teams appreciate an old, career backup quarterback the way the Redskins do. Gibbs compared having Rutledge's head on the sideline to having Doug Williams and Jim Hart in past seasons. Sometimes you have to use the insurance policy.

Rutledge completed his first eight passes. A 33-yard hookup with Ricky Sanders led to a touchdown on Rutledge's first series, getting the Redskins within 35-21. "Jeff had played the same way in scrimmages and exhibition games," Bryant said. "We had been stopping ourselves, but once we scored {on his first series}, we knew we could again."

Rutledge completed 25 passes in the fourth quarter and overtime. That's eight more passes than he had completed the last two years. A long time ago, he said, "I accepted that this is the way my career would go."

It must also be said that while the Redskins passed this "gut check" with flying colors, the comeback was made completely possible by generous contributions from the inept Lions and some of the worst coaching decisions you'll ever see. Leading by 38-24 with only nine minutes to play, offensive coordinator Mouse Davis called three consecutive pass plays. Two fell incomplete and on the third Bob Gagliano ran out of bounds to avoid Wilber Marshall. Time consumed on drive: 54 seconds.

If the Lions had simply asked Gagliano to kneel three straight times, more than two minutes might have elapsed on that possession and who knows if the Redskins would have had time to score. And what about this: Barry Sanders, who ran 10 times for 100 yards the first three quarters, didn't touch the ball in the fourth. An average carry by Sanders would have picked up a first down and forced the Redskins to start using timeouts early. Wayne Fontes and Davis should wear bags over their heads to practice this week.

Asked what his coaches were thinking about, club owner William Clay Ford said: "Don't bother me. Don't talk to me. I'm liable to say something I'll regret."

So while the Lions ponder their 13th straight defeat to Washington, the Redskins return home giddy and in total control of the first wild-card playoff spot. A three-way quarterback controversy -- Mark Rypien is practicing again -- isn't even cause to pause after this rousing comeback. "I've been around some wins, some comeback wins {as a Giant} like this that could turn your season around," Rutledge said.

Just in case you're wondering, Rutledge will start next Monday night in Philadelphia. "I'd probably be hanged from something if I didn't start him," Gibbs said.

A career backup quarterback knows nothing is forever. Rutledge can get a table in any restaurant in D.C. this week, but may not be recognized next month. "I may never play another down," he said, "but this is something that nobody can ever take away."