Stover boots Ravens to 3-0

CLEVELAND -- The howling winds off Lake Erie were at kicker Matt Stover's back, causing his jersey to ripple and prompting his experienced mind to adjust to the elements.

The Baltimore Ravens' bench was praying in unison, remaining hopeful that they could narrowly capture a victory and remain undefeated after being pushed to the brink by the Cleveland Browns.

And veteran quarterback Steve McNair was calm and composed as he watched the drama unfold with his face not betraying any signs of tension after engineering a last-minute drive to get Stover into position to win the football game. "Before the game, Matt told me he had my back," McNair said. "I knew he was going to make it." Stover delivered once again in dramatic fashion, booting a low kick 52 yards and through the uprights with 20 seconds remaining Sunday for a 15-14 victory to advance the Ravens to their first 3-0 start since moving to Baltimore. "Who else would you rather have doing it?" Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "He's the only kicker I know as a head coach, and he has bailed me out more times than I care to count."

It was Stover's 12th career game-winning kick, the longest of his game-winning field goals, and marked his 29th consecutive successful kick. The kick would have even been good from a few yards deeper, remaining true despite its low trajectory. "I call him automatic Stover," middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. Stover's late heroics followed cornerback Chris McAlister's interception of Browns quarterback Charlie Frye in the end zone with 3:28 left in the fourth quarter and Baltimore trailing 14-12. "The funny thing about this is that last night the chaplain said, ‘Even when Matt Stover is pushed to his limits with a 51-yard field goal scenario,'" Stover said. "Then, I hit a 52-yard field goal." It was Stover's third field goal of the game under blustery conditions. The 38-year-old spent five years in Cleveland, leaving in 1995 when former majority owner Art Modell moved the team to Baltimore. "If you look at the kickoffs, that kind of gives it away," Stover said. "The thing about the wind is you have to kick the ball straight. I knew there was a little diagonal wind out there." For Stover to get into that game-winning situation, he needed major assistance. That was provided largely by McNair, a former NFL Co-Most Valuable Player whom Baltimore acquired from the Tennessee Titans in June for a fourth-round draft pick.

McNair completed six of nine passes for 52 yards on the decisive drive to get Stover in position. McNair finished 23 of 41 for 264 yards with a 3-yard touchdown pass to tight end Todd Heap on the first play of the fourth quarter, and his decade of experience was on display at the end of the game. "It's second nature because I've been in this situation plenty of times," McNair said. "We believe in each other and we believed we could win this football game. "We grew up as an overall team, winning in a hard environment on the road. All of that plays a hand in how good this football team can be." McNair helped rally Baltimore from a 14-3 deficit at halftime.

The Ravens were 0-for-6 on third downs in the first half, but rallied after halftime to finish 7 of 17. On the final drive, McNair converted two third-down situations where he located wide receiver Mark Clayton for a pair of receptions. "He brings a sense of calmness," Billick said. "No matter how you orchestrate it, it gets frantic out there and he stays calm throughout." McNair spread the football around, distributing it eight times to Clayton for 74 yards and seven times for 132 yards to wide receiver Derrick Mason, his former Titans teammate. Baltimore finished with 340 yards of total offense after being limited to 103 yards in the first half.

Apparently, McNair made a lasting impression in the huddle during the game-winning drive. "It all starts with Steve," Heap said. "You see his face and he looked in every single guy's eyes and told us what to expect and what we needed to do. "We had to overcome some adversity. It's really something when everyone has confidence even when we hadn't done it the whole game."

The Ravens finally began clicking on offense after halftime and pulled within 14-9 in the third quarter on McNair's short scoring toss to Heap. The Ravens went for a two-point conversion, but McNair's pass to Heap was broken up by rookie linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, a former University of Maryland star.

Baltimore was stonewalled on a 4th-and-1situation in the third quarter where running back Jamal Lewis [86 yards on 21 carries] was slammed for a 2-yard loss by linebacker Matt Stewart. Meanwhile, the defense had to stay under control to finally force Frye into a critical miscue. The second-year quarterback began the game 15 of 18 for 210 yards, including a 58-yard touchdown pass to Braylon Edwards past the flailing grasp of cornerback Samari Rolle. That marked the first touchdown allowed by Baltimore, which entered the contest with the NFL's top-ranked defense. Frye finished 21 of 33 for a career-high 298 yards. "We knew we couldn't go the entire season without allowing a touchdown," McAlister said. With seven sacks in addition to linebacker Bart Scott's blindside hit on Frye affecting his follow-through when he was trying to go back to Edwards in the end zone, it was a case of Baltimore tightening up on defense. They allowed just 91 total yards in the second half.

McAlister stepped in front of Edwards, who drew a pass-interference penalty in the end zone against the former Pro Bowl cornerback in the first half to set up Frye's quarterback draw touchdown. He baited Frye into an errant throw. "I knew it was going to be the last opportunity that we had to keep them from putting up points," McAlister said. "We had to make a stop at that moment and that's what we did. They had just come at me down there, so I kind of had my antennae up." Then, McNair completed four consecutive passes to move the Ravens into the outer limits of Stover's range. His career-long field goal is 55 yards against Houston in 1991.

During that final drive, McNair took a big shot, but dragged himself to his feet and kept throwing. When asked if he had all of his faculties for the last few plays, McNair replied: "I think so. I got hit pretty good, but that's part of the game. I bounced back up." After Stover's big kick, the Browns' last chance was halted when linebacker Gary Stills ripped the football out Joshua Cribbs' hands and recovered the fumble.

The divisional victory leaves the Ravens tied for first place the AFC North with the Cincinnati Bengals (3-0), setting up a high-profile encounter with the San Diego Chargers next week at M&T Bank Stadium. "We grew up," said Scott, who sacked Frye twice. "It wasn't pretty, but we got the job done. We showed a lot of heart and believed in each other."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times in Westminster, Maryland.

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