McGahee wakes up in nick of time

OWINGS MILLS -- It had been so long since oft-criticized Baltimore Ravens running back Willis McGahee had impacted a game in a meaningful, positive way that coach John Harbaugh joked that the coaching staff had intentionally preserved him for the dramatic ending of a pivotal victory over the Dallas Cowboys.

During the Ravens' 33-24 win at Texas Stadium, McGahee bolted up the middle for a career-high 77-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter to give Baltimore a nine-point advantage.

"I think this is exactly how we planned it," Harbaugh quipped. "We were saving him for that special run right there. You saw it. That was a part of the plan all along.

"No, Willis is a great running back. He's been fighting those things all year. He's getting stronger every single week. He practices as well as anybody I've ever been around, and it showed up this game."

McGahee rushed for 108 yards on eight carries after gaining just 76 yards on 33 carries in his previous five games following a season-high 112-yard, two-touchdown performance against the Houston Texans on Nov. 9.

Derided for dropping passes, providing shoddy pass protection and fumblin g in recent weeks, McGahee had been highly critical of himself recently and described his outing against the Washington Redskins as "doo-doo."

"Everybody has been on Willis, on Willis, on Willis," middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. "He's been in a slump, but the bottom line is the football game never changes. The only thing people remember is what you do last. He breaks that big run and really pulls us out as a team."

This time, McGahee was smiling afterward after contributing a rare key play toward a win.

"To me, my number was called, I just made a play," McGahee said. "That's what I'm here for. The offensive line did a great job as far as blocking the whole game. They were tough at first, but then their defense started breaking and that's when it happened. My number was just called."

Until the last five minutes of the fourth quarter, McGahee had rushed for just 31 yards and caught three passes for 21 yards.

On his big touchdown run, he avoided safety Ken Hamlin going for his legs and had enough speed left over to get to the end zone. The blocking was textbook and the Cowboys got caught in a run blitz, bunching up at the line of scrimmage and creating a giant seam for McGahee to bust through.

"It was a quick-hit play," McGahee said. "As soon as the play happened, it opened up. I had one person to beat. He tried to hit me low and he missed, and it was just daylight for me."

The offensive line was credited for McGahee's opportunity to attack the Cowboys' aggressive defense.

"Our offensive line just kept hammering against a great defense and a great defensive front," Harbaugh said. "Our offensive line kept hammering kept hammering, kept hammering like a hammer on a rock and they cracked finally in the fourth quarter, and that's a credit to our offense."

It remains unclear, though, if McGahee's role will become expanded.

Especially since fullback Le'Ron McClain has emerged as the team's leading rusher and touchdown scorer and turned in a career-long 82-yard run of his own that tied Jamal Lewis (Sept. 14, 2003 against Cleveland) for the longest carry in franchise history and the longest run by a visiting runner in the 37-year history of Texas Stadium.

"I can't even get into that, man," McGahee said. "Like I said, my number was called and I made a play. Just go out there and try to do what you need to do."

Meanwhile, McClain stiff-armed Hamlin on his touchdown jaunt that sealed the game for Baltimore as linebacker Anthony Spencer tried in vain to arm-tackle the 260-pound lumbering fulback and cornerback Terence Newman couldn't corral him, either.

"It was a little surprising that he can get that 80 yards without anyone getting him," rookie quarterback Joe Flacco said. "To see that happen was great."

McClain rushed for a career-high 139 yards on 22 carries.

"You know how big my eyes got," said McClain, a Pro Bowl selection who leads Baltimore with 832 yards and nine total touchdowns. "I just heard, 'Run, run, run.'"

MOTIVATED: The Ravens used every motivational ploy they could think of heading into this game headlined by the Cowboys' elaborate celebration to commemorate the rich history for the final game at Texas Stadium .

"I guess it's not a homecoming anymore," McGahee said. "It's a mock funeral. Have you ever been to a mock funeral. We had them in high school all the time. We spoiled their day. This was probably the best concert ever heard at Texas Stadium."

Linebacker Terrell Suggs even took exception with Cowboys offensive coordinator Jason Garrett turning down the Ravens' head coaching job that went to Harbaugh.

"It was personal," Suggs said. "You know their coach, Jason Garrett, he turned the job down and said one of the reasons was we didn't have men of character. We fed off that. I wonder which team he wishes he was coaching now?"

There was no quotation to be found that Garrett actually said that, but the point remains: The Ravens had big chips on their shoulders for this game.

"We had a lot of politics with this game that made it 10 times more fun," Suggs said. "We had a coach on their side actually get offered the job and he denied it. He said he didn't want to coach the men on this team. Then we heard those guys personally recommended us as their homecoming opponent.

"If that's not the ultimate disrespect, I don't know what is. We wanted to be party crashers. We hope they enjoy their little parade tonight, their little ceremony. I guess we were the dynamite tonight."

R. LEWIS CALLED IT: Lewis described Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo as an "up and down quarterback" days before kickoff. Well, Romo lived up to that stern evaluation with two interceptions to free safety Ed Reed, who said he scouted Romo's tendencies at last season's Pro Bowl, and completed 24 of 45 passes for 252 yards, two touchdowns and a 66.2 rating. He was just 8 of 17 for 59 yards and two picks in the first half.

Conversely, Flacco rose to the occasion.

He completed 17 of 25 passes for 149 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions for a 96.9 rating, rebounding from a couple of rough weeks to defeat a quality defense on the road that sacked him five times in the first half.

"Sacks are sacks, at the end of the day as long as you do what you need to do on the other drives, you can overcome sacks," Flacco said. "There isn't time to be down. You have the whole game to come back, get yourself together and we did that."

TRICKERY: Punter Sam Koch caught the Cowboys off guard on a fake field goal run as the holder sprinted to the left when Dallas lined up eight defenders on the right side, gaining nine yards and a first down to set up Derrick Mason's touchdown catch.

"That may have been the play of the game," Harbaugh said. "We planned to run it all along and it's something we've been working on all year. [Special teams coordinator] Jerry Rosburg is an aggressive person and he likes to get things done."

And Koch, who played fullback and linebacker in high school before punting full-time at Nebraska, was thinking touchdown.

"You definitely wish you could finish that thing off, but it was still fun," Koch said. "I played fullback in high school, but you lose the vision after a while. Obviously, my talents aren't as a running back."

TRAINING ROOM: Cornerback Fabian Washington said his hamstring only bothered him during the first defensive series. After that, it held up well the whole game.

"No twinges, it was good," Washington said. "I feel great. I'm just glad it didn't flare up on me like last week."

Offensive tackle Willie Anderson (sprained left ankle) and cornerback Samari Rolle (sprained foot) were the only two new injuries reported. Anderson's X-rays were negative. Adam Terry, who replaced Anderson, limped off the field in the second half but kept playing.

QUICK HITS: Kicker Matt Stover booted four field goals in his return to his hometown where he used to sell programs in the Texas Stadium parking lot growing up. He converted kicks from 26, 29, 37 and 35 yards. "I always knew the history of the Dallas Cowboys growing up here," Stover said. "I played on the Cowboys YMCA team as a kid. I couldn't be more proud to have the opportunity to come in here and kick again. It was a blessing to have that happen to me." ... Harbaugh dedicated the victory to director of player development O.J. Brigance, who is valiantly fighting amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and attended the game. "We dedicated it to O.J. Brigance because of the things that O.J. Brigance talked to our football team about last summer when we started training camp on the very first day," Harbaugh said. "And we told them no matter what your condition, no matter what your circumstance, no matter what hardship you face in life or football, you overcome it. And that's what our football team did." ... Wide receiver Mark Clayton, who's from nearby Arlington, Texas, caught four passes for 35 yards. ... Rookie running back Jalen Parmale, who was recently signed off the Miami Dolphins' practice squad, was active for the game but didn't play. ... The Ravens improved to 7-0 when Reed intercepts two passes and 26-8 when he intercepts at least one pass. ... Suggs couldn't resist getting in a good-natured crack at Romo and his celebrity girlfriend, Jessica Simpson. "One thing that gets him, his girlfriend was in the stands and usually that goes in the other teams' favor," he said. "I'm just happy she delivered."

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