By Jamison Hensley
September 25, 2006
If the Ravens proved anything in improving to 3-0 for the first time in their history, it's that this team doesn't need everything to go perfectly for it to remain perfect.
Finding resiliency on defense and a new faith in their offensive leader, the Ravens overcame an 11-point deficit in the fourth quarter to deliver an exhilarating, 15-14 victory over the Cleveland Browns before a stunned crowd of 72,474.
After cornerback Chris McAlister's drive-stopping interception in the end zone, quarterback Steve McNair put his authoritative stamp on this offense, essentially willing the team to a 12-play, 47-yard drive that left the game to kicker Matt Stover and the all-important weather.
Feeling the 25-mph wind to his back, Stover nailed the 52-yard field goal with 20 seconds left, the longest game-winner of his 17-year career.
The wind-aided victory blew new life in the Ravens, providing them with perhaps a sign of a charmed future.
"We grew up today as a team," McNair said. "All that plays a hand in how good this football team can be."
The beauty of the Ravens' fourth quarter as an offense was the ugliness of the first part of the game.
In the first three quarters, McNair was 13-for-25 for 173 yards. On the final drive, he was 6-for-9 for 52 yards, stepping up his play as well as his presence in the huddle.
"It all starts with Steve," tight end Todd Heap said. "He looked in every guy's eyes and told everyone what to expect and what we needed to do. It's really something when everybody has confidence in what's going on. To do it under pressure at the end of the game, it's a confidence-builder for our offense."
The Ravens' first victory in Cleveland since 2003 kept them tied atop the AFC North with the Cincinnati Bengals, broke a four-game losing streak in the division and provided a sense of accomplishment unlike the first two games this season.
"This was a huge emotional win on the road," coach Brian Billick said. "Don't underestimate what we just did."
The heroics of Stover and the offense could not have occurred without a timely effort by the defense.
After surrendering its first two touchdowns of the season -- ending its streak of holding teams out of the end zone at nine quarters -- the Ravens' defense buckled down when the team needed it the most.
In the second half, the defense gave up 91 yards and allowed the Browns to move past their 31-yard line only once. The defense learned more about itself in this clutch performance than it did in the more dominating efforts of the first two weeks.
"This came down to guts," said defensive end Trevor Pryce, who had 1 1/2 of the team's seven sacks. "I think we needed it badly as a defense."
The only time the defense flinched in the second half came after the Ravens had closed to 14-12 with 10:22 left in the game. The Browns went the length of the field, moving to the Ravens' 4-yard line and needing a touchdown to put the game out of reach.
But linebacker Bart Scott's rush from the blind side hurried quarterback Charlie Frye's throw to the end zone, where McAlister jumped in front of receiver Braylon Edwards for the interception.
"They came at me the last time down there so I had my antenna up and anticipated that they were going to go to him again," said McAlister, who was flagged for pass interference on his previous play in the end zone.
That key turnover handed the ball to the Ravens' suddenly vibrant offense.
Trailing 14-3, the Ravens opened the fourth quarter with a 3-yard touchdown pass from McNair to Heap, the Ravens' first offensive touchdown in 11 quarters in Cleveland.
After a failed two-point conversion and a three-and-out by the Browns, Stover cut the deficit to 14-12 with a 43-yard field goal.
Once McAlister stopped Cleveland's last meaningful drive, McNair took over at the Ravens' 20-yard line with 3:21 left in the game.
His biggest throw came on the fifth play, a third-and-four situation where McNair waited until the last moment to dump a pass over the middle to Mark Clayton for an 8-yard gain.
After getting rid of the ball, McNair was hit by blitzing safety Sean Jones, causing him to lie on his back for a few seconds while reeling in pain.
"That's part of the way I play," McNair said. "I'm going to get hit. It's about can I bounce back up and continue to play? Today, I got tested pretty good."
McNair found Clayton on his next two completions, hitting him for 6 and 8 yards to move the Ravens into Cleveland territory. His last completion went to receiver Derrick Mason for 8 yards, which was originally ruled incomplete until the replay reversed it.
"That drive was different than any drive I've been a part of on this team," Heap said. "Just the look in each other's eyes and to see everybody was focused and knew what we needed to do. To be able to get that win, that's a huge growth for our team. It's going to pay dividends for the next two, three games we play."
Said Mason, who finished with seven catches for 132 yards: "It was the type of game we needed. Our backs were against the wall, there was a lot of adversity. We decided to suck it up and count on one another to go out and pull out a victory."
The Ravens persevered despite a road trip that could have forced them to play otherwise.
On Friday, Heap hurt his ankle in a freak accident at home, forcing him to play at less than full strength. On Saturday, two team buses collided -- including the one that had McNair aboard -- as the Ravens made their way to the airport.
But the Ravens never wavered yesterday, as the players told each other "We're going to win" along the sideline during the game-winning drive.
"If we would have won any other way, we wouldn't have grown up today. We wouldn't have understood what adversity is," linebacker Ray Lewis said. "Today, we faced adversity dead in the face. For us to respond the way we did, you have to tip your hat to our team right now."