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Sweet dreams for McNair

As the fans file into M&T; Bank Stadium for one of the most intense games in this city's history, the Ravens' Steve McNair probably will be asleep.

Considered one of the calmest quarterbacks in the NFL, McNair always takes a personal timeout after warming up on the field. His long-standing ritual is to lie down in the lounge inside the locker room and put a towel over his head.

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It seems the best way for McNair to focus on a game is to close his eyes.

"I concentrate right before I go to sleep," said McNair, whose naps can last as long as an hour, "and visualize what is going to happen in the game."

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It typifies McNair, the consummate dreamer when it comes to football.

He is a strong believer in fate, and why shouldn't he be at this point?

In being traded from his beloved Tennessee Titans to his once-bitter rival, McNair has gone from a team with a 4-12 record - the worst record of his 12-year career - to the leader of the second-seeded Ravens (13-3), who will play host to the third-seeded Indianapolis Colts (13-4) in today's AFC divisional playoff game.

"The book has already been written for the Ravens to win the Super Bowl," McNair said. "We just have to carry out the script."

The script began with the opening drive of the season when McNair marched the Ravens 80 yards on a 14-play, nine-minute drive at Tampa Bay.

It continued in his return to Tennessee, where he led the Ravens' rally from a 19-point deficit to deliver the biggest comeback in their history.

Team has faith

And the drama showed up again in the final month of the regular season when he threw for three touchdowns in Pittsburgh just one week after injuring his throwing hand.

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Yet as much as McNair sees this as a season of destiny, the Ravens have that same faith in him.

"We believe it can get done because Steve believes it can get done," offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden said.

At 33 years old, McNair knows there is a shrinking window of opportunity to get it done.

That's why he is so fixated on winning his first NFL championship now. During his half-hour introductory news conference in June, he mentioned "Super Bowl" seven times.

"You look at quarterbacks like Dan Marino and Jim Kelly, and they talk about how your career was great regardless of whether you won the Super Bowl or not. No, you want to win a Super Bowl," McNair said. "That's how quarterbacks are defined."

McNair has already redefined himself this season, from a quarterback who was thought to be in decline to one who is the trigger man on the NFL's 11th-ranked passing attack.

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He finished with a career-best completion rate (63 percent), and his quarterback rating (82.5) and number of completions (295) were the highest since his 2003 co-Most Valuable Player season.

But McNair is never mentioned in the same vein as such other elite quarterbacks as Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Carson Palmer.

"He doesn't get enough credit," coach Brian Billick said. "You hear a lot about other guys and this is a former Most Valuable Player who has been to the Super Bowl. This guy is pretty good."

Alcorn choice

Nearly 16 years ago, McNair decided not to pursue his dream of playing football.

Unlike Manning, who was born to urban privilege in the South, McNair grew up in rural poverty in Mississippi. McNair and his four brothers handled most of the chores at his family's tiny house that sat upon cinder blocks while his mother worked the graveyard shift at a lighting plant.

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So when baseball's Seattle Mariners offered $5,000 after drafting him in the 35th round, McNair made up his mind to take the money that could immediately help his family.

"But my brother and my mother sat me down and talked me out of it," McNair said. "They told me to be patient and you're going to get your due."

After switching his sights back to college, the next decision tested his conviction to play quarterback.

If McNair wanted to play at a big football program, he would have to do it as a defensive back because he drew little interest as a quarterback. One of the schools willing to give him a chance was Division I-AA Alcorn State, with whom he went on to set five collegiate records.

Summing up his desire to play quarterback, McNair said: "I wanted to be that leader."

As a leader, McNair is a quarterback of few words and countless comebacks.

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Two months ago, when the Ravens trailed the Titans by six points with 5:09 left, the offense gathered on the sideline, where one receiver yelled, "Hey, we've got five minutes."

McNair responded: "Hey, it won't take that long."

Four plays and 94 seconds later, he hit Derrick Mason for a game-winning, 11-yard touchdown.

"When you get into the huddle, it's like there's nothing we can't do," tight end Todd Heap said. "You read his eyes and he brings that confidence to everybody."

Ask any teammate about McNair and the answer is always the same. He's calm, cool and collected.

McNair said he's been known to tell some stale jokes, but none of the Ravens remember any.

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Is there a lighter side to McNair?

"That is his lighter side," said Mason, a longtime teammate of McNair. "The guy you see on the field is the same off the field. He doesn't get too high and he doesn't get too low. That's Steve."

Despite all the dazzling touchdown passes and clutch victories, McNair remains grounded because he still sees himself as that "laid-back, good ol' country guy." It was only a couple of weeks ago when people noticed him eating lunch with - of all players - Samuel Gutekunst, a German practice squad player, in the Ravens' cafeteria.

"He may be the most unassuming superstar you could ever imagine," quarterbacks coach Rick Neuheisel said.

One goal

No one has to tell McNair that he's two wins from getting a chance to erase 1 yard.

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In the January 2000 Super Bowl - which the usually mellow McNair calls his most nervous moment - he answered a touchdown drive by St. Louis by moving the Titans to the Rams' 10-yard line with six seconds left.

Tennessee called the play "Z Sliver" with the thought of forcing overtime. McNair hit Kevin Dyson on a slant at the 3, but linebacker Mike Jones made a Super Bowl-saving tackle at the 1.

"I relive it a lot," McNair said. "You don't get too many opportunities to go to the Super Bowl. You'd rather get beat 50-0 than come 1 yard short and not win the Super Bowl."

In his 12th season, McNair has accomplished nearly everything a quarterback can.

He has been to the Pro Bowl. He has won the league's MVP Award.

The only goal left is to win a championship, which could define his legacy.

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"As you get closer and closer, you think about it more. It makes you more hungry to not only get back there, but to win it," McNair said. "It's the ultimate dream."

jamison.hensley@baltsun.com


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