Words hard to find for McNair's play in statement game

December 26, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

Clearly, the Ravens are running out of superlatives for the most significant offseason acquisition in their history. In fact, even had Steve McNair not made a hasty exit from Heinz Field to get home in time to open presents and roast chestnuts and do other Christmas-y stuff with his family, he might not have had much new to offer about his own performance against the Steelers.

It's becoming routine - actually, it became routine long ago. When Brian Billick answered a question about McNair's play after the 31-7 rout with, "How many times do we have to say it?" you almost couldn't blame him for the brief detour into smugdom.

It wasn't so much whom McNair did it against, or where, or how, or that he did it with a throwing hand that had been stepped on a week earlier. Most amazing about it all was that he did it in the second-to-last regular-season game. Which, thanks to him, was the game that tied the franchise's record for most wins and put the Ravens in the driver's seat for a playoff bye and in position for home-field advantage with one week left.

Because the single biggest worry the Ravens' faithful had about putting its faith in McNair last spring was whether he could make it through the regular season in one piece. He was, after all, injury-prone. Liable to miss games. Thirty-three years old, going on 43.

After all, the Titans surely had logical reasons to lop his salary off their books after 11 football-scarred seasons, besides their being unrepentant cheapskates, right? Now, not only has McNair started every game (and finished all but two, due to injuries hardly of the wear-and-tear variety, a concussion and an injured hand), but he also has gotten better as the season has gone on. The game against the Steelers was his best so far.

Plus, any mention of his playing through the hand injury produced not awed expressions, but eye rolls.

"I don't know, you go out there and you play," said wide-out Derrick Mason, whose secondary role on the Ravens is to translate his years as McNair's Titans teammate to a new audience. "It's just another injury Steve has to deal with. It's nothing you look at and say, `Wow.' It's just another injury. If you can play, you go out and play."

Added Samari Rolle, also an ex-Titan from McNair's years there, "In Tennessee, he wouldn't practice all week, then come out and throw for 300 yards. He's a beast."

That was what the more cynical among us fretted about after McNair arrived - what extraordinary precautions would have to be taken to safely steer him into January? Flexible practice time? Special no-contact rules during the week? Bubble wrap? McNair had the perfect plan all along, it turns out: get one of the best records in the AFC, earn a week off in early January, make sure you don't have to travel after Christmas.

McNair's numbers against the Steelers were outstanding, of course, yet they only tell part of the story of the Ravens' domination. For the game, he was 21 of 31, for 256 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. OK. In the first half: 11 of 17, 134, two scores, one pick - which happened only because a pass went through Mark Clayton's hands.

More? McNair threw on the Ravens' first snap, complete for 14 yards, and kept throwing on first down, play-action and straight drops. So much for taking away the pressure to throw with the injured hand.

More? As it has already been pointed out often, the two touchdown passes, to Clayton (a laser that only he, in full stride a step ahead of Troy Polamalu, could get, with outstretched arms) and to Demetrius Williams (perfect loft, touch and timing), were the best passes he has thrown all season.

More? One of the most effective drives of the season - in the second quarter, leading 7-0 despite dominating to that point, covering just 58 yards, but taking 10 plays and 6:32, featuring catches by four players, none of them Clayton, Williams or Todd Heap.

Ovie Mughelli and Jamal Lewis, not known for their prowess in pass patterns, made big plays on catches, including Lewis stiff-arming Larry Foote and running over Joey Porter. On the drive-capping scoring pass to Daniel Wilcox from 1 yard, two other receivers were open in the end zone as well.

The Steelers were pretty much done after that.

"It doesn't get any better than that," Ray Lewis gushed. "When your defense goes out and gets a three-and-out, gets a turnover or whatever it may be, and the offense comes out in the field and holds the ball for seven minutes - that's why we win on the road, because we're playing complete football right now."

Oh, one last point, worth repeating: This all happened in Week 16.

Billick was right. When it comes to McNair and his full body of work this season, how many times do you have to say it?

david.steele@baltsun.com

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