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BALTIMORE — Steve McNair momentarily forgot about the chaos that had unfolded for nearly an entire football game. His pair of interceptions, tight end Daniel Wilcox’s critical goal-line fumble and usually stalwart wide receiver Derrick Mason’s inexplicable, deep drop in the late Sunday afternoon sunlight, all became irrelevant to the veteran quarterback.
For two minutes and change, McNair concentrated only on duplicating another round of late-game heroics to propel the undefeated and first-place Baltimore Ravens to a 16-13 victory over the previously unbeaten San Diego Chargers at M&T Bank Stadium.
Capped by McNair’s 10-yard touchdown pass to tight end Todd Heap with 34 seconds remaining, the crisp two-minute drill boosted the Ravens to the first 4-0 start in their existence.
McNair’s composure on the decisive drive included 4 of 5 accuracy for 43 yards along with a 12-yard scramble. “I’m actually relaxed with two minutes, and that’s how you’ve got to be,” said McNair after engineering the 21st winning or game-tying drive of his 12-year career in the final two minutes of regulation or overtime. “You can’t be all nervous.
"You’ve just got to be relaxed, go out there and make every play count. A lot of people shy away from that. I live for that.”
It was the second consecutive week that McNair orchestrated a late drive to win a game where Baltimore was trailing, following a last-minute, 15-14 win over the Cleveland Browns. On the decisive drive, McNair absorbed major shots to the upper torso. However, he kept uncorking spirals to his receivers, finding Mark Clayton for 17 and 13 yards to get down to the Chargers’ 10-yard line.
“He’s definitely a fighter,” Heap said. “He takes hits, he gets right back up and doesn’t even react to how they’re hitting him. It’s like he doesn’t even take the hits.
“He just brushes his shoulders off and goes and makes the next play. I like having a quarterback like that around here that brings that toughness and leadership. We’re going to win a lot of ball games with him as our quarterback.”
The Ravens overcame multiple miscues, including McNair misfiring on a pass behind Mason in the fourth quarter for his second turnover.
In the third quarter with Baltimore down 13-7, Wilcox caught a 1-yard shovel pass and appeared to be on his way for a touchdown when he ran into linebacker Stephen Cooper at the San Diego 1-yard line. Cooper halted Wilcox in his tracks and stripped the football out of his hands.
The damage was increased when Ravens coach Brian Billick was penalized his final timeout with an unsuccessful instant-replay challenge.
“You never give up on your team,” Wilcox said. “I was kind of out of my wits for a bit, but all the guys came back and backed me up: ‘It’s all right. Hold your head up. We’re gonna keep fighting.’”
A dose of fortune contributed heavily to the Ravens’ cause after McNair’s interception.
With kicker Nate Kaeding attempting a field goal at the Ravens’ 34 with San Diego leading 13-7 in the fourth quarter, punter Mike Scifres fumbled the snap.
Scifres’ woes were far from over.
After penalties backed the Chargers down to their own 7-yard line, coach Marty Schottenheimer ordered Scifres to run out of the back of the end zone for a safety. That closed the gap to 13-9, setting the stage for McNair.
“There was no doubt in my mind we would win this game when No. 9 went out there,” said Ravens cornerback Samari Rolle, who played with McNair in Tennessee. “He’s been through everything you can be through as a quarterback. He’s just got it.”
The Ravens trailed until 41 seconds remained when Heap bulled into the end zone, dragging former University of Maryland star linebacker Shawne Merriman behind him.
"It was more of a hitch route, and I saw Steve’s eyes and he looked at me and from then I knew to take off and cut in front of a defender," Heap said. "He made a great throw and I was able to get it into the end zone."
McNair never dealt with a third-down situation during the six-play, 60-yard drive that lasted 2 minutes and 38 seconds.
“Steve is always a cool cat,” Wilcox said. “He always has that air about him and a smile on his face like, ‘Let’s go guys, let’s get it together, we need a touchdown.’” It was a major turnaround for McNair following a lackluster first half where he completed only 5 of 12 passes for 25 yards and a 42.4 passer rating.
“We threw the knockout punch, and they couldn’t get up,” Mason said.
McNair finished the game 17 of 30 for 158 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.
“If we don’t make enough plays to win early, we can make plays to win the game late,” linebacker Ray Lewis said. “That’s why we brought him here.”
The Chargers began the game in a no-huddle alignment, driving 69 yards for their lone touchdown. Rolle fell down in single coverage against Malcom Floyd, surrendering a 31-yard score up the sidelines.
San Diego led 13-7 at halftime, stonewalling the Ravens for 45 yards of total offense on 24 plays. LaDainian Tomlinson ran for 98 yards on 27 carries for the Chargers, but didn’t impact the game much.
The Chargers’ final score came on Kaeding’s career-long 54-yard field goal.
However, he flubbed a 40-yard try in the third quarter and a botched hold on a 52-yarder opened the door for Baltimore.
The momentum swung like a pendulum throughout the game.
“That thing was wavering up and down,” linebacker Bart Scott said. “That’s life in the NFL. It’s how you respond.”
San Diego was installed as a 2 ½ point favorite, a distinction that bothered the Ravens. Baltimore, like San Diego (2-1) entered the game with all of its victories over winless teams.
“Everyone was saying we haven’t played anybody,” Lewis said. “They haven’t played anybody, so why would you favor them in our house.”
Now, the Ravens are alone at the top of the AFC North division following the Cincinnati Bengals’ loss to the New England Patriots.
On special teams coach Frank Ganz’s suggestion the day before kickoff, the team viewed legendary former middleweight champion Marvin Hagler’s classic knockout win over Thomas Hearns.
“We watched Hagler take some great shots, his head busted open, and the quote from Hagler was that, ‘When he tastes his own blood, he knew he had to turn it up a notch,” Scott said. “We got hit in the mouth and we tasted our own blood.
“You keep taking hits in the mouth, you keep pushing them back and eventually somebody’s going to break. We didn’t break today.”
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.