Finishing is fine line for Ravens

`Cardiac Champs' ride 24-7 last quarters to 3-game win streak

Titans was grandest finale

Sharper on McNair: `We knew that we would stop him'

November 14, 2001|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

Last year, the Ravens relied on high-pressure defense. Now, they thrive on high drama.

Fourth-quarter theatrics have headlined the Ravens' three-game winning streak, producing such memorable conclusions as a controversial touchdown catch, a series of missed field-goal attempts and one of the most thrilling goal-line stands in recent NFL history.

The Ravens (6-3), who have outscored opponents 24-7 in the fourth quarter over the past three weeks, have taken a liking to this "Cardiac Champs" persona.

"Yeah, we've been riding on a little luck this past couple of weeks," left guard Edwin Mulitalo said. "It seems like we come out to play in the fourth quarter. And if the game were 45 minutes, they would have probably had us. But the game was a full 60 minutes long and that's what made the difference."

The ultimate grand finale came in Monday night's 16-10 victory over the Tennessee Titans. Mayhem in the Music City began with 14 seconds left in the fourth quarter, when Titans quarterback Steve McNair threw a 5-yard pass to receiver Kevin Dyson. The Ravens' Duane Starks and Jamie Sharper smothered Dyson at the 1-yard line with the clock running.

Hurrying to the line of scrimmage, McNair took the snap with three seconds left and dived across the goal line for what appeared to be a winning touchdown. But before McNair received the snap, Ravens linebacker Peter Boulware was attempting to get back onside by squeezing through the Titans' offensive line and tripped on the right leg of Tennessee center Bruce Matthews.

While the Titans and their sellout crowd celebrated, the officials huddled. After an eight-minute discussion between the officials, referee Bernie Kukar ruled Boulware was offside, which took the touchdown off the scoreboard and moved the Titans half the distance to the goal line with three seconds left.

"Once the defensive contact was made with the offense, the play was dead," NFL director of officiating Mike Pereira said yesterday.

This time, the Ravens turned back McNair on a quarterback sneak to stay a half game behind the AFC Central-leading Pittsburgh Steelers.

"The bottom line through it all is they ultimately got it right in a roundabout way," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "The league officials do a great job of understanding that whenever possible, you want the outcome of the game to be decided on the field by the players. That's a hard sequence of events sometimes. Right or wrong, the final play on the 1-inch line came down to the players on the field to win or lose the game."

To stonewall the 225-pound McNair, the Ravens needed a big surge in the middle from defensive tackles Sam Adams and Tony Siragusa. Leading with his forehead, Adams hit his gap low and pushed the pile so hard that a diving McNair got pushed backward.

"It doesn't get any better than that," Adams said. "This is it. It's do or die. And we were able on that particular play to make the play to win the game."

Said Billick: "This team has faith in this defense. For them to emotionally hold on and just go out and play the last play, it may seem subtle to others but it was huge."

Once denied, McNair still had a chance to sneak to his right, where he was first hit by safety Corey Harris and then finished off by Sharper and Ray Lewis.

"We knew that we would stop him," said Sharper, who was initially part of the stop in the middle before showing great awareness to follow McNair to the outside. "When he's going sideways, he doesn't have much power."

Said Adams: "It was a nice lick, too. I think it hurt Corey more than it hurt Steve."

The Titans, who could have been flagged on McNair's first sneak for illegal formation (not enough men on the line of scrimmage), received criticism over their play selection. Instead of rolling out McNair to test the Ravens' secondary, the Titans chose to go directly at the Ravens' strength in the middle.

"I'll never second-guess that call, not after the way he played," Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher said of McNair, whose rushes and passes accounted for 275 of the Titans' 318 total yards. "I thought he'd find a way to get it in. He got it in the play before."

Nail-biting finishes have become a trend for the Ravens recently.

Three weeks ago in an 18-17 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Ravens rallied from 11 points down in the fourth quarter to go ahead on a diving 2-yard catch by Qadry Ismail with 4:07 left in the game. The Jaguars said Ismail trapped the ball, but the play was upheld upon review.

Then, the next week in Pittsburgh, the Ravens escaped with a 13-10 win when normally sure-footed Steelers kicker Kris Brown missed four field goals. His last failed attempt - a potential game-tying field goal - sailed wide right with eight seconds left in the game.

But none of those moments can surpass the events from Monday night when the Ravens once again owned the final act.

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