It's clear McNair will have hand in any playoff success by Ravens

Ravens 27 Browns 17

Ravens Gameday

December 18, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

It was a dream and a nightmare all in one game.

Don't feel compelled to choose sides on this. It's all right to feel the joy and the pain. Yes, you saw the Ravens clinch a playoff berth for the first time in three years, rising to 11-3 and staying in the conversation about home-field advantage. And you saw them do it even though Steve McNair spent most of the game on the sideline with his right hand bandaged up.

If you feel guilty about the terror you felt all day long, don't. You did, indeed, see the Ravens win. At home against a now-4-10 Browns team with a quarterback making his second career start, but it was still a win. With Kyle Boller under center, yet, and not always pulling away from him all that smoothly, either.

Still ... you saw the Ravens play without McNair. And, as even Boller said, "It's not always going to be pretty."

"It was pretty good," coach Brian Billick said of Boller's relief performance, his second this season. (He played in the late stages of two other games this year when the outcome was decided.) "Fits and spurts. Did some good things, did some not-so-good things."

That's putting it mildly.

The best news that came out of yesterday at M&T Bank Stadium -better than the 27-17 victory, better than the end of the playoff mini-drought, better even than the Boller-Demetrius Williams hook-up that essentially won it - was that after his hand was stepped on during the Ravens' second possession, McNair's X-rays were negative.

And that his staying on the sideline was more of a precaution by a coach playing it ultra-safe with so much at stake in each game the rest of the way. And that he didn't have anything on his hand when he left the locker room. And that he likely will be dropped down the Ravens' chimney in full health Christmas Eve in Pittsburgh.

Because no one deserves the angst and stress the Ravens faithful - not to mention the Ravens themselves - experienced all afternoon. Ever wondered what 70,857 people sound like cheering with their hearts in their throats?

The professions of faith from the players afterward said a lot about their support of Boller, but just as much about their own ever-growing belief in themselves.

"I mean, we would rather have [McNair] be in there," Derrick Mason said, "but I don't think there's a doubt in anybody's mind when Kyle comes in that we can get the job done. Just let him play, just let Kyle go out there and let him play quarterback. Give him the plays and let him run them."

And, he added, don't let whatever bad might happen blossom into something worse.

"Kyle is mentally tough enough that when he makes a mistake, he can go back out there and make one play, and that's what he did," Mason said.

Still, the moral of yesterday's story is, as it has been since the day McNair arrived: Protect that quarterback, by any means necessary. Especially now. The positioning for a long playoff run is so close, you can smell it, but it all gets fanned away if McNair can't play.

So keep him upright. Watch his back. Let him play in boxing gloves, if that will protect those delicate metacarpals. If a threatening cleat comes near him, as one did yesterday, untie those laces, get your hand in front of his, whatever.

Next time, it won't be Derek Anderson and the Cleveland Browns trying to take this from them.

If ever the impact of McNair's presence was in doubt, it shouldn't be any more. The air of cool and certainty they always have with him in the huddle was much harder to come by. Not only was the offense defined by Boller's Jekyll-and-Hyde showing - with no one knowing which face would appear on any given play - the defense was surprisingly slipshod at the least-expected times.

Granted, it also had to play through injuries, and for some reason the Browns always are incredibly difficult for the Ravens to shake. But even with all that, they should never have had to sweat out a 17-3 lead under these circumstances. It's as if everybody was thrown off balance by the sudden changeup - not totally, but noticeably.

That's what happens, though, when the player whose mistakes necessitated the pursuit of McNair in the first place steps in and starts right in with the feast-or-famine routine. When his teammates - that is, Jamal Lewis on his fumble and the defense on the Browns' long completions that helped tie the game - started messing up as well, it almost seemed as if Boller's struggles were contagious.

Of course, they weren't, because Boller saved himself, and the day, on the Williams touchdown strike.

The Ravens won. Repeat that. They won. ... They won.

But out came the vision everyone has known is out there but has kept buried as long as possible. Scary, wasn't it?

david.steele@baltsun.com

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