Capt. Comeback has crew of believers

November 13, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — NASHVILLE, Tenn.-- --There were some who said that getting Steve McNair made the Ravens a Super Bowl team. Yeah, right, others scoffed.

Suddenly, with seven weeks to go, it no longer sounds that crazy.

What does sound crazy is that it's more plausible now -- after he made an emotional return to his old home and led a desperate, mistake-riddled comeback against a 2-6 team the Ravens were supposed to beat easily -- than it has been any other time. Even after last week's hang-on-for-dear-life win over the Cincinnati Bengals.

The details from yesterday's 27-26 win over the Tennessee Titans don't matter as much as the fact that this was the third time this season McNair has been the difference in a Ravens victory. Three wins, and this one was bigger, from farther behind and more dependent on McNair's unflappability, than the other two combined.

Three wins also equals the distance between his 7-2 Ravens and the rest of the AFC North, which is quickly disappearing from view.

All because the Ravens quarterback is, if not immune to pressure, then very resistant to it.

"It was a very happy huddle out there," McNair said, echoing what everybody involved said afterward. "Regardless of how many points we were down, how much time is on the clock, we always know that we have the capability of coming back."

If they didn't before, they do now. And now, they know a few more things. They know that they have bigger fish to fry than the division; only unbeaten Indianapolis has a better record, although Denver has a tiebreaker on them.

With what went on around the AFC yesterday with the Bengals, Patriots and nearly the Broncos and Colts, any one of McNair's rallies could make the difference in where and when the Ravens might play in January. Byes and home playoff games are suddenly in their grasp.

More important, each of those three improbable wins has added another cloak of confidence to the Ravens and another level of trust in their undisputed leader. If that's a huge factor now, it looms even larger later.

Yesterday, they beat a team they were supposed to beat, when that team forgot its role momentarily. They did it without Ray Lewis and with a practice-squad call-up finishing the game for him. They did it after Musa Smith had to ride the cart for the second time in three years. When all else had seemingly failed, they secured the win by knocking out the starting quarterback and then blocking a field-goal try.

"We believe in ourselves," said offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden, explaining how and why they chipped, picked and slithered their way back from a 26-7 deficit. "And we believe in our quarterback."

How the Ravens, and McNair in particular, look during the course of the game is rendered more irrelevant each week. Clearly, they'll never be as pretty as the Colts, but nobody is. Even the Broncos, who made McNair look worse than anybody this season, barely got out of Oakland with a win yesterday.

So the Ravens fit right in. They won yesterday, rallied from 19 points down, while McNair stepped out of the end zone for a safety; while they drew four personal fouls, including two on back-to-back plays (said Bart Scott: "I know what everybody was saying then -- `Uh-oh, they're losing it again'"); while McNair threw two interceptions, one in the end zone; and while Vince Young showed sparks of brilliance and Travis Henry ran for 107 yards.

"You're down that much and have no momentum going for you," tight end Todd Heap said, "and it's real easy to say, `You know, today's just not our day, we don't have anything going for us.' "

It's just been hard to say that with McNair around this season. Nobody says it, certainly not him. Again, the players and coach spoke rapturously about the air about McNair, the kind that can't be quantified in numbers.

Except maybe these. In the drive that ended in Matt Stover's field goal to cut the deficit to six, McNair managed one first down and completed one pass, but it was a 20-yarder to rookie Demetrius Williams on third-and-10. On the game-winning drive, he got the ball with five minutes left and 50 yards to go, and he swallowed it up in four plays and 94 seconds.

How? "We knew we had to score, point-blank," is how receiver Derrick Mason put it, point-blank.

Simple formula, and it has worked three times. McNair has taken a crash course in the system, he's had horrific performances, he's been knocked out of a game, he's had the play-callers switched on him, he walked into the petri dish of emotion that was yesterday -- and he's 7-2.

It only looks good for a few minutes here and there every week. But if it still looks this way in January, this game and the two before it will be the reason why.

david.steele@baltsun.com

OPPONENT -- Atlanta Falcons Site -- M&T Bank Stadium WHEN -- Sunday, 1 p.m. TV -- Ch. 45 Line -- Ravens by 4

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