SEATTLE (AP)—It was as if dice-rolling coach Mike Martz was calling plays from his St. Louis-area home Sunday.
The Rams, actually under the direction of assistant head coach Joe Vitt while Martz recovers from a heart virus, were lining up for a field goal in the second quarter to add to a 3-0 lead against first-place Seattle. A third straight win and an improbable restart of the NFC West race was in sight.
But instead of settling for the 25-yard kick, Vitt morphed into Martz, providing the turning point in the Seahawks’ 31-16 victory.
He had holder Dane Looker flip the ball to kicker Jeff Wilkins, who was about to throw to wide-open Cameron Cleeland at the 5. But Seattle cornerback Marcus Trufant charged the kicker. Wilkins aborted the pass and ran feebly into a turnover on downs.
Energized, the Seahawks stormed 87 yards to a go-ahead touchdown, Shaun Alexander’s first of three rushing scores. They went on to outscore the Rams 24-3 and outgain them 281-46 from that fake until deep into the third quarter.
“I couldn’t believe they did it,” Alexander said, his voice rising in surprise. “I just think momentum is a strong thing. Whenever you got a chance to keep momentum going, you should never change it, because it gave momentum to us.”
St. Louis quarterback Marc Bulger called the failed fake “demoralizing.”
Alexander romped for 165 yards on a season-high 33 carries. With more St. Louis mistakes, the West may have been won.
The Seahawks, 7-2 and winners of five straight for the first time since 1999, lead the second-place Rams by three games. Essentially, that is a four-game bulge with seven regular-season games remaining because Seattle swept St. Louis after losing the previous four to the Rams (4-5).
“It’s a really cool thing when you can see the changing of the guard,” Alexander said.
Vitt, meanwhile, seized full responsibility for his tricks.
“The first call was mine, and we came away with nothing,” Vitt said. “I wanted to get points. We’re facing the No. 1 offense in the National Football League.”
What Vitt didn’t know: Seattle special-teams coach Bob Casullo had been practicing against this fake for weeks, repeatedly challenging Trufant to stay home. Many times, Trufant wasn’t.
This time, when it counted, Trufant couldn’t have been more home if he was Martz back in Missouri.
“We knew they couldn’t keep getting three points,” said Casullo, who began practicing the flip fake in his first Seattle season because his former Raiders unit had been fooled by Cleveland on the same play in a 2002 loss.
“I’m like an old elephant,” the 54-year-old Casullo said, pointing to his graying temple. “I don’t forget.”
Despite all that—plus only one touchdown on five trips inside Seattle’s 20 — St. Louis closed to 24-16 with exactly 7 minutes left. Bulger’s 14-yard, fourth-down touchdown pass through the mist found Torry Holt, playing his first game in four weeks after being sidelined by strained knee ligaments. Bulger was also playing for the first time in four weeks, coming off a strained shoulder.
But then Alexander and quarterback Matt Hasselbeck (17 for 29 passing, 243 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions) each converted third-and-1 runs. Seattle converted two more first downs before Alexander dashed 17 yards for his third score with 1:12 left.
Bulger finished 28-for-40 with 304 yards with a touchdown and an interception. He was frustrated after uncharacteristic misplays by four-time Pro Bowler Holt. In the first quarter, a wide-open Holt appeared to not see Bulger’s accurate 40-yard pass. The ball skidded at Holt’s feet near the 5-yard line.
Holt said he was looking up into the rain for a higher throw.
Then, with St. Louis down 24-6 late in the third quarter, Bulger’s precise pass to the back corner of the end zone went through Holt’s raised hands.
That prompted Bulger to angrily punch the air and then shake his head in disbelief.
It was as if he knew the meaningful part of his season had slipped away.
^Notes: Alexander’s touchdowns made him the NFL’s first player to have 15 in five consecutive seasons. The six-year veteran and possible free agent this offseason has 79 career TDs rushing, 15th on the NFL list. … Bulger had his fourth 300-yard passing day in six games, not including Oct. 17 at Indianapolis, when he sprained his shoulder. … Seattle reserve wideout D.J. Hackett, prodded last week by coach Mike Holmgren to “step up,” grabbed his first career touchdown on a 31-yard pass from Hasselbeck. That gave Seattle its 24-6 third-quarter lead.