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OWINGS MILLS — Steve McNair felt the pressure coming, recognizing immediately that a red-clad swarm of large bodies was heading straight toward him.
Unperturbed by the Kansas City Chiefsâ€™ pass rush drawn toward his play-action fake to running back Jamal Lewis, the Baltimore Ravensâ€™ veteran quarterback scrambled forward and stepped into his throw.
McNairâ€™s lobbed spiral to wide receiver Mark Clayton produced an 87-yard touchdown pass during Sunday’s 20-10 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium. It marked the longest completion of McNair’s dozen years in the NFL.
However, that wasnâ€™t the only personal record McNair established. The three-time All-Pro passer hasnâ€™t thrown an interception in four consecutive games, a string of 142 passes that represents the best streak in his career.
The last time McNair played keep-away from defenses this well was in 2003 when he shared league Most Valuable Player honors with Peyton Manning and went 132 passes without an interception.
â€œIâ€™ve been around some that have that facade, but itâ€™s really because they are just glazed over and donâ€™t know what the heckâ€™s going on,â€ Ravens coach Brian Billick said. â€œItâ€™s easy to be cool and unruffled when you are unaware of just how precarious a situation you are in. I think it has created a demeanor for the whole team.â€
The strongest statement delivered by the offense came in the fourth quarter Sunday when McNair kept alive a 16-play, 86-yard drive that lasted a staggering 9 minutes and 13 seconds. He located rookie wide receiver Demetrius Williams 33 yards downfield on 3rd-and-6 at the Ravensâ€™ 18-yard line to avoid a three-and-out situation.
â€œWe kind of told ourselves that we were going to score, we were determined to move the chains and finish what we started,â€ McNair said. â€œItâ€™s about trust.â€
Lewis capped the drive with a 1-yard touchdown run after receiving a message from McNair in the huddle.
â€œMcNair told us, â€˜Letâ€™s get this ball moving,â€™â€ Lewis said. â€œThat means, letâ€™s buckle up, letâ€™s put the saddle on my back and letâ€™s ride.â€
Although McNair ranks 16th in the NFL with a fairly pedestrian 83.1 passer rating with 13 touchdown passes and nine interceptions, he has completed 251 of 398 passes for 2,578 yards. More importantly, he has led the Ravens to late comeback victories over the Cleveland Browns, San Diego Chargers and Tennessee Titans and wins in six of the past seven games.
â€œSince the first time that he got here, I have always looked up to him,â€ Clayton said. â€œJust seeing his cool, calm presence on the field where we had to put a drive together at the end of the game, heâ€™s just really cool about it.
â€œHe knows that weâ€™re going to get it done. We take off of that, and heâ€™s a great leader. Weâ€™ll follow him all the way to the top.â€
Since Billick fired offensive coordinator Jim Fassel and assumed play-calling duties, McNair has improved markedly with eight touchdown passes and two interceptions under Billick compared to five touchdowns and seven interceptions under Fassel. With a 64.1 passer rating under Fassel, McNair has improved his passer rating by 19 points since Billick took over.
The Ravens have installed several plays and wrinkles favored by McNair, including waggles, bootlegs and half-rollouts. With better pass protection and the playbook utilizing his mobility, McNair has only been sacked 16 times this season and hasnâ€™t been sacked in the past three games.
â€œThe offense is steady,â€ McNair said. â€œIt can be explosive if we just stop killing ourselves. If we do the right things with the right technique and make the right read and the right moves, things will be perfect.â€
Over the past five games, McNair has completed at least 60 percent of his throws. Against the Chiefs, he completed 21 of 27 attempts for a 77.8 completion percentage and a 122.7 passer rating that’s his best since being acquired in a trade in June from the Titans. In the second half, McNair completed 9 of 10 passes for 165 yards and a touchdown.
With the Ravens (10-3) on the verge of clinching a playoff berth and the AFC North title, McNair has traditionally thrived at this time of year.
He has a career record of 25-13 as a starter in December, a .658 percentage, with 8,461 yards, 48 touchdowns and 21 interceptions. His 87.4 career passer rating in December is the highest for McNair of any other month in the regular season.
Everything seems to be pointing toward a strong finish from the unquestioned leader of a traditionally beleaguered offense thatâ€™s now ranked 22nd in the league.
"Steve’s one of those guys who’s at a point in his career where he’s just so steady," tight end Todd Heap said. "He’s got the confidence about him, and he’s that steady force. He sits in the huddle and whether it’s third-and-15 or third-and-one, it’s the same look in his eyes like, ‘We’re going to get this done, guys.’"
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland