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OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Steve McNair had uncorked a series of errant passes, short-hopping footballs across the grass or overthrowing too high for even the tallest targets to grasp. All of that suddenly changed in the fourth quarter of the Ravens’ 15-14 win Sunday over the Cleveland Browns, perhaps making a dent in the Baltimore Ravens’ institutional culture.
Behind McNair’s accuracy, a sputtering offense stopped coughing as he moved them 47 yards in 12 plays in the final minute to set up Matt Stover for a game-winning, 52-yard field goal to boost Baltimore to its first 3-0 start in franchise history.
After several years of the offense being either treated with scorn, ignored or merely tolerated by an organization defined by defense, the other side of the football became relevant again because of McNair’s execution and composure.
“That right there, that last drive explains everything,” middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. “You take any other young guy and put him in the same situation, and one of those passes might not be there. That guy is total poise, man.
“To see the way he orchestrated that last drive, as a defense, that’s why everybody on the sideline said, ‘We got ‘em, come on.’ That’s one of the reasons why he’s here, and that’s one of the greatest reasons why I truly respect him as a player.”
McNair completed 10 of 16 passes for 91 yards in the fourth quarter as Baltimore won in Cleveland for the first time since 2003.
In the past, it might have been a different case altogether following cornerback Chris McAlister’s interception in the end zone with 3:28 remaining. The Ravens might have been dependent on McAlister to take the turnover all the way for a touchdown to win the game.
This time, McNair helped Baltimore drive the football from the Ravens’ 20-yard line down to the Browns’ 33-yard line by completing 6 of 9 passes for 52 yards.
“It showed we’ve got each other’s back in a way that might not have happened before," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. “Not that they didn’t want to have their back, so to speak. But they can actually do something with it consistently and predictably in terms of some of the talent and experience we have the quarterback position.
“It emboldens them and gives them confidence. It’s a big part of the chemistry we’re beginning to develop.”
McNair was far from sharp for three quarters as Baltimore was on the wrong end of a 14-3 deficit. By halftime, he had completed only 5 of 12 passes for 71 yards.
Meanwhile, young Browns quarterback Charlie Frye completed 15 of his first 18 passes for 210 yards.
It was Frye, though, whose interception in the end zone cost his team the game. And it was McNair, who engineered a scoring drive to clinch the win over a traditional AFC North rival.
“I enjoyed sitting there and watching it,” nose guard Kelly Gregg said. “I couldn’t picture it any better. I’ve got a lot of confidence in them.”
This was the first real test the Ravens have faced this season. Baltimore previously handled winless Tampa Bay and Oakland by a combined margin of 56-6. Although the defense played a major role against Cleveland with seven sacks and McAlister’s interception, this was the first time the offense contributed heavily to the final outcome.
"For us to win it that way was substantial," Billick said. "You can’t get enough of those lessons, and you’ve got to learn from them along the way.
“Fortunately, it didn’t cost us a game. What we gained from that was more substantial than if it was a one-sided game."
Former Ravens defensive end Michael McCrary commented that the team seemed overconfident heading into Cleveland. If they were, they were quickly brought down to earth by the Browns (0-3) coming within one point of handing them their first loss.
“Anytime you have a win of that nature you recognize how easily it could have been taken away and gone the other way,” Billick said. “It brings home to you how tenuous the margin of error is in the NFL.
“The momentum we have collectively after three wins, it’s tenuous. It will change in a heartbeat if we let it.”
However, the Ravens have yet to play a team with a winning mark, defeating their first three opponents that have a combined record of 0-8.
“This is the schedule, this is what the league laid out for us,” Billick said. “Each has its own difficulty.”
The measure of competition is about to increase markedly Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium as the Ravens host the undefeated San Diego Chargers (2-0), which features running back LaDainian Tomlinson and outside linebacker Shawne Merriman, the former University of Maryland star. Like the Ravens, the Chargers have feasted on winless teams, defeating Oakland and Tennessee.
“Who we’ve played has no bearing whatsoever on how we’re going to play against San Diego,” Billick said. “We have to take San Diego for what they are, which for my money might be the best team in the AFC right now.”
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.