After getting knocked around, McNair misses an opportunity

Ravens Extra

January 14, 2007|By DAVID STEELE

As he sat in front of his locker, then slowly started getting dressed, Steve McNair looked even more physically and emotionally beaten down than the rest of the Ravens. Kicker Matt Stover, who was the entire Ravens offense last night in the AFC divisional playoff game against the Colts, walked past and offered quiet encouragement.

"Thanks, Steve," Stover said. "Hang in there. You had a hell of a year."

Minutes earlier, Ed Reed had proclaimed his support publicly. "Without Steve McNair," Reed said, "we would've never gotten here."

But the appreciation of his teammates was about all that went well for McNair yesterday. In the wake of one of the most crushing football defeats the city has experienced, 15-6 to the franchise that had abandoned Baltimore a generation ago, McNair took responsibility for the loss. Of course, it wasn't all his fault.

Except, as the quarterback -- and as the savior anointed the day he became a Raven, who up until yesterday had filled the job almost flawlessly -- it was all his fault. It's harsh, but it's the nature of the job.

And the two interceptions didn't help.

As the game wore on, everything else about the rabidly anticipated grudge match pointed not only to a soul-cleansing Ravens win, but also to a public humiliation of the arch-villain, Peyton Manning. Of all the bad postseason performances he has had, especially on the road, this was an all-timer.

McNair was the Ravens' hole card, it seemed, easily better than his counterpart in the caldron of the playoffs. But as much as Manning stunk, McNair out-stunk him.

"Anytime you can hold Peyton Manning to only 170 yards passing ..." Adalius Thomas said with a sigh. "Two interceptions, only [15] completions, no TDs -- going into the game, I'd say I'll take that. But I'd switch it all for a win. I'd let him throw for 600."

Manning didn't need 600 yards, didn't even need a touchdown. He needed to be bailed out of some wretched decision-making, decisions that led to two interceptions and should have led to three more.

He also needed Adam Vinatieri, who with five field goals made himself the offseason acquisition of the season.

McNair likely held that title until yesterday.

"They gave us a lot of opportunities, but offensively, we didn't take advantage of the opportunities," McNair said. "And offensively, it starts at the quarterback; it starts at myself. ... You have to go out and maintain the momentum the defense gives you, and we didn't maintain that because of the turnovers."

The first turnover, Todd Heap's fumble, led directly to the Colts' second field goal. The second wasted one of those defensive momentum-changers, Reed's first pick on one of those inexplicable Manning throws. The Ravens marched to the 3 and called timeout before a critical third-and-goal. After the timeout, McNair found Heap tucked behind the goal line and fired.

He fired into the hands of safety Antoine Bethea. McNair said he didn't see him, Heap accurately called it a great play by Bethea, and Bethea said he read McNair and timed his break perfectly. It was devastating. It also was something McNair hardly did all season, especially not in the run of nine wins in the last 10 games.

The second pick was no less painful -- and indicative of how the game went, considering how often the Ravens kept self-destructing every time their offense started moving.

Now, with 10 1/2 minutes left, they were inside the Colts' 40 again, in another third-and-long. Demetrius Williams, who hadn't gotten a sniff of the ball all day, had a little space, but McNair threw behind him, to Nick Harper, inside the 25.

They wouldn't get that close again.

It was an immense source of pride to the Colts' defense, maligned (and justifiably so) all season before knuckling down in the playoffs and giving up no touchdowns in two games. Manning sounded vindicated, too; it seems that his antenna was up for the fan abuse, for the talk from the Ravens' defense and for his own reputation.

"For so long, it's been `Colts win,' but `Peyton Manning loses,'" he said. "Either give me all the credit when we win, or give the team the blame when we lose."

Mighty sensitive talk from the younger of the quarterbacks yesterday. If anyone should feel vulnerable, it's McNair, at 33 three years his senior. Seasons like this -- 13-3, a division title, a bye and a postseason home game -- are never guaranteed, especially not at this stage of a career. It hurt him to let one get away.

"When you're in your 12th year, and next year is my 13th," McNair said, "the window of opportunity is just closing and closing fast."

It's even worse when you helped close this window yourself.

david.steele@baltsun.com

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