PONTIAC, Mich. -- What happened to Jeff Rutledge yesterday is only supposed to happen to Frank Merriwell in dime novels.
Rutledge, a 33-year-old journeyman quarterback who's thrown more than 50 passes in a season only twice in his 12-year career, played a storybook game yesterday.
"If I never play another game, you can't take away today," Rutledge said after he led the Washington Redskins from a 35-14 deficit to a 41-38 overtime victory over the dazed Detroit Lions at the Pontiac Silverdome.
He made probably the two best plays of his career, a 12-yard touchdown run on a draw play that helped tied the game, 38-38, with 18 seconds left in regulation and a 40-yard pass to Art Monk on third-and-15 from the Washington 5 in overtime, eventually leading to Chip Lohmiller's game-winning, 34-yard field goal.
"It's something I'll always look back on," Rutledge said. "It was something I'd never dream of."
This game is destined to be a memorable part of the history of the Redskins. Their comeback from a 21-point deficit tied the club record set in 1965 for their biggest comeback.
"I'm totally exhausted," coach Joe Gibbs said. "It was one of our best comebacks, one of the biggest victories that we've had since I've been here."
They tied a league record for first downs (39), tied two other team records and broke three others, including first downs, total yardage (674) and completed (43).
The victory gave the Redskins a 5-3 record and left them in good position to get a wild-card playoff spot, because they're one of only four teams with winning records in the National Football Conference teams with a winning record.
In the last two seasons, the Redskins had been .500 at similar points in the season -- 5-5 in 1988 and 4-4 in 1989 -- and failed to make the playoffs.
"We knew we couldn't lose. We just couldn't lose this game. If we lost this game, it would have ruined our season," wide receiver Gary Clark said. "We don't want to keep on saying, 'What if? What if?' the way we did the last two two years. It was time to stop saying, 'What if?' and go out and play."
For the Lions, it had to be one of the worst losses.
Owner William Clay Ford said: "Please don't bother me now. I'm liable to say something I'll regret."
Lions coach Wayne Fontes declined to take any questions after saying he was "proud of the team's effort" in a brief statement he was "Prod of the team's effort."
Safety William White said: "It's going to take awhile to chew on it. We all ought to go hide our faces and not go out tonight."
What made it such a bitter loss was that the Lions confused the Redskins with their run-and-shoot offense, intercepted Stan Humphries three times and seemed on the verge of a runaway victory after Barry Sanders burst 45 yards up the middle for the touchdown that made it 35-14 with 10 minutes, 37 seconds left in the third quarter.
Gibbs had informed Rutledge he was going in after Bennie Blades had intercepted an overthrown Humphries pass two plays earlier.
"That's just one of the things you feel," Gibbs said of his decision to yank Humphries, which was the 15th regular-season quarterback change he's made since Joe Theismann broke his leg in 1985.
"It's like, 'Hey, you'd better take a shot with somebody else and see if he can get us going,' " Gibbs said.
Gibbs left no doubt Rutledge earned a start next Monday against the Philadelphia Eagles. Gibbs said he'd "probably be hung from something" if he didn't start Rutledge. Rutledge completed 30 of 42 passes for 363 yards and wasn't intercepted.
Rutledge, signed as a Plan B free agent after the New York Giants left him unprotected last February, spent the first month of the season of the injured-reserve list with a shoulder ailment and had thrown only seven passes this year.
Rutledge, though, started quickly. He led the Redskins on a 63-yard touchdown drive on his first series, but Gerald Riggs fumbled the ball away on Washington's next series, and the Lions turned it into a 26-yard field goal by Rich Karlis and a 38-21 lead at the end of the third quarter.
On the Redskins' next drive, they stalled on the Detroit 21, and Gibbs called on Lohmiller to kick a 38-yard field goal that cut the deficit to 38-24.
The next two Detroit possessions were critical, because it's difficult to kill the clock with a ball-control game using the Lions' .. run-and-shoot offense. Both times, the Lions tried to throw, failed to get a first down and didn't run much time off the clock.
The Lions also were hampered when quarterback Rodney Peete pulled a hamstring in the third period and was replaced by Bob Gagliano. Peete hurt the Redskins with option plays, which aren't Gagliano's forte.
The result was that Rutledge had time to lead the Redskins on drives of 80 and 85 yards in the final nine minutes to tie the score.
On the first drive, Clark scored on a 34-yard reception on fourth-and-six after he caught the ball on the 20 and dodged two tacklers.