Thanks to McNair's spark, Ravens make late charge

Ravens Gameday

Ravens 15 Browns 14

September 25, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

CLEVELAND — CLEVELAND-- --Ye of so little faith. You know who you were. Talking about what Steve McNair was doing so far as quarterback of the Ravens that Kyle Boller couldn't.

Now do you know?

McNair does what he did in the final 18 1/2 minutes of yesterday's game in Cleveland. He turns a certain 2-1 record, an ugly, dispiriting, bandwagon-halting 2-1, into a shiny, glorious 3-0. He doesn't forget what went on the first 41 1/2 minutes, or most of the two entire games before that -- he learns from it, he adjusts and he makes it all right again.

And when it's time to march from his 20-yard line into Matt Stover territory in the final three minutes on a hostile field, he makes everybody around him swell with confidence, rise with anticipation, stretch that extra inch, hold a block that extra split-second -- even jump and shout and chant like college kids while the pressure is mounting and defeat is one misstep away, at the end of a game full of missteps.

"You should have seen everybody on the sidelines, running around, saying, `We're gonna win, we're gonna win, we're gonna win,' " linebacker Ray Lewis said in the locker room after his new team co-leader had marched the Ravens to the points that turned a 14-3 Browns lead into a 15-14 victory.

Added receiver Mark Clayton: "Guys found strength in each other to make the plays; they were saying, `Let me do something to help the guys.' Seeing things like Jamal [Lewis] running over people -- that's energizing. And at that point, man, I was tired. Seriously. But I got that energy back."

And, said McNair: "When you've got the offensive line talking, showing morale, getting guys together, that's a good sign. You don't see that too often in the National Football League, encouraging each other, talking to each other, telling them to hold their blocks. I was glad to hear that, especially in this environment."

To hear McNair tell it, his teammates were lifting him up. His teammates were saying it was the other way around. Whatever the case, they all rose together, in ways the Ravens as we know them, post-Super Bowl, haven't done all that often.

McNair didn't earn any style points yesterday. He took some punishment along the way, his receivers bailed him out a few times, and the Browns could have ended it at least three times down the stretch had they held on to a couple of his passes. For long stretches, Charlie Frye was the better quarterback, and at the end he definitely had the better numbers.

Except that McNair won. Stover scored the winning points, Chris McAlister made the pivotal interception, Clayton and Derrick Mason and Todd Heap kept making big catches. But ask them all who got them there, and the vote is unanimous: Steve McNair.

Just like he was supposed to from before the time the Ravens got him.

It's easy to say that this game shouldn't have played out this way, with the Browns winless, beaten up and getting booed at times by their own fans. But this is how it was, and the result was better than the alternative. With this team, more games will go this way than the way the first two against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Oakland Raiders did -- ugly, clawing, grasping, decided by a big play or two, or, more often, a steady hand under fire.

McNair's hand was as steady as they come yesterday -- at least at the end. Deep into the third quarter, he and the offense were sputtering along as usual, and when Jamal Lewis barely got out of the backfield on a fourth-and-one at the Browns' 28, trailing 14-3, a gruesome loss seemed certain. Even when they got the ball back one Browns three-and-out later, his first pass was nearly picked off by safety Sean Jones.

He completed 14 of his next 18 for 151 yards, covering three drives, three scores and 12 unanswered points.

Few of them reminded anyone of Johnny Unitas. But one went to Heap -- a question mark before the game with a freak ankle sprain -- in the end zone on the first play of the final quarter to make it a game again. Four converted third downs. His last, to Mason sliding at the sideline at the Browns' 33 with 33 seconds left, set Stover up.

"He told me before the game he's got my back," McNair said of Stover.

And vice versa. Everybody has known for 17 years what Stover can do. What rarely was obvious was what the offense could do to help him.

Now you know.

Everybody claimed that the offense wasn't necessarily fixed for good -- but they also talked about this being the game where the Ravens "grew up." With so little experience in how to win games like this, they got a crash course from one of the masters.

"It all starts with Steve," Heap said. "You see his face -- he looked in every single guy's eyes and told us what to expect and what we need to do. It's really something when everybody has confidence in what's going on, even if we weren't doing it all game."

That's why Steve McNair is here. In case you weren't sure.

david.steele@baltsun.com

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