The climax was playing out like another Edward Jones Dome nightmare, the home team on the verge of surrendering what was left of a once-healthy advantage and suffering another disheartening defeat.
Like everyone in the stadium Sunday, not to mention millions of television viewers, St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher could see the way this one was heading, what with his win-starved team clinging to a two-point lead and about to punt the ball back to the Seattle Seahawks and their red-hot quarterback, Russell Wilson, from deep in its own territory with just under three minutes remaining.
It was the perfect time for a stunning plot twist -- and who better to provide one than The 'Stache?
At Sunday's pivotal moment, as is his custom, Fisher kept even his closest confidantes in the dark. When he sent in the fake-punt call on fourth-and-3 from the Rams' 18, only a dozen others were in on the audacious ploy: special teams coach John Fassel and the 11 men in the huddle.
Music City Miracle, meet the St. Louis Surprise.
Punter Johnny Hekker took the snap, waited for Benny Cunningham to flash open on the left and delivered a short pass that the running back caught and turned into an 18-yard gain. The Rams (2-4) would get another first down and kill the clock -- though not until sweating out a Tre Mason fumble and ensuing scrum -- to close out a 28-26 victory over the defending Super Bowl champs.
It's not too much of a stretch to say that the Rams, who've struggled in the wake of quarterback Sam Bradford's second torn ACL in less than a year, might have salvaged their season by upsetting the Seahawks (3-3). Having blown leads of 21 (to the Dallas Cowboys) and 14 (to the San Francisco 49ers) in their previous two home games, the notion of squandering a 21-3 edge to Seattle was one that Fisher couldn't stomach.
In fact, before the Rams ran their first-down play from their own 11 on that final possession, Fisher approached Fassel and told him to "make sure (Hekker's) ready" because a fake punt might be in the works on fourth down.
"They had such momentum," Fisher explained on his drive home from the Dome, his voice a mixture of relief and excitement. "And look -- Russell Wilson's really good. We had them down, and he took it over. So no, we wanted no part of him at the end."
Wilson, in the wake of a wild week that featured the stunning trade of playmaker Percy Harvin to the New York Jets and a broken foot suffered by fullback Derrick Coleman in pregame warmups, was superlative in the second half, finishing with 313 passing yards and 106 rushing yards on seven carries. Game manager? Yeah, right.
St. Louis, riding with a pair of former third-stringers in the backfield -- quarterback Austin Davis (18 of 21, 152 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions) and Mason (18 carries, 85 yards, one TD) -- needed a full-squad effort to prevail.
And, amazingly, the fake punt wasn't even St. Louis' most impressive special-teams stunt. That came midway through the second quarter when the Seahawks, trailing 14-3, punted from their own 49 -- and the Rams countered with a well-rehearsed ensemble performance that turned deception into an art form.
With Jon Ryan's high punt sailing toward the right (from the Rams' perspective) sideline, return man Tavon Austin and nine other Rams drifted to the left to set up a phantom runback. As Austin pretended to wait for a ball that was headed to the opposite hash mark, the Seahawks dutifully followed, buying the ruse even as he fell backward for effect, presumably gunning for that Oscar nomination.
"What you have to understand is that they're so good on special teams, and that's what allowed us to run that play," Fisher said. "Their punter is money -- we knew if they were between the 45-yard lines he'd hit it end over end with great hang time, and put it on the numbers. We needed the kind of kick that would (theoretically) force a fair catch, and we knew he'd give it to us, and that's why it worked.
"We scripted that play in practice and ran it over and over, and it pretty much played out that way. Tavon did a little too much -- the falling over backwards, I don't know where he gets that -- but Sted made a sweet catch, and then we got him some help and pulled it off."
Facing the prospect of having to defend Wilson on a potential game-winning drive, the Rams needed just a little bit of help -- and Fisher gave it to them, in the form of the Hekker-to-Cunningham completion that might have kept their playoff dreams flickering.
"Hey," Fisher said, "whatever it takes."
For this team, at this moment, it's a legitimate mantra -- and there's nothing fake about it.