Game 7: Ravens save best for last

The winning drive bordered on the improbable.

The comeback restored faith in a suffocating defense.Rallying around a 38-year-old backup quarterback and a series of fourth-quarter stands, the Ravens raced back from an 11-point deficit to edge the Jacksonville Jaguars, 18-17, before 69,439 at PSINet Stadium yesterday. Winning at home for the eighth straight time, the Ravens (4-3) stopped a two-game skid but remained in a third-place tie in the AFC Central.

Stepping in for injured starter Elvis Grbac, Randall Cunningham added another memory to his lengthy career with a perfect fourth quarter, completing all seven passes for 76 yards. The 16-year veteran showed his poise in the eight-play, 56-yard game-winning drive, which he capped with a 2-yard pass to a diving Qadry Ismail with 4:07 left.

Stepping up after three lackluster quarters, the Ravens' defense delivered a defiant performance in the final 10 minutes. After giving up a touchdown that increased the deficit to 17-6, the defense clamped down on the Jaguars, giving up 39 yards and two first downs the rest of the way.

"That's what you get when you're a Super Bowl team," defensive end Michael Mc- Crary said. "You can come back from things like that and not let it bring you down. You can keep the hope and pressure coming. That shows the character of this team."

The Ravens' biggest drive was as thrilling as it was chaotic. The series featured two fumbled snaps, a fingertip catch and a controversial finish.

After his second bobbled exchange, Cunningham converted a third-and-three by throwing a sinking pass to tight end Shannon Sharpe, who stretched out to catch it a few inches from the ground.

Three plays later, Cunningham (23-for-31, 222 yards) rolled out to his right and saw Ismail had a step on cornerback Jason Craft on a play appropriately called "Scram TD." He flung the ball to a sliding Ismail, who cradled the 2-yard touchdown catch in the right side of the end zone.

The officials signaled a touchdown, and the Jaguars challenged the call, thinking Ismail trapped the ball. After a lengthy review, the score was upheld.

"I knew that it was a touchdown," said Ismail, who had seven receptions for 85 yards. "I practiced plays like that over in my mind so many times that I just felt like I knew it wasn't going to be overturned."

After the victory, Ravens coach Brian Billick moved to quash any potential quarterback controversy when asked if Grbac, who did not play because of bruised ribs, would be his starter Sunday at division-leading Pittsburgh.

"If he's healthy, yeah," he said.

The fate of the game was controlled by the Jaguars, who built a 17-6 lead by the beginning of the fourth quarter.

First, Jacksonville (2-4) took advantage of a miscommunication between Ravens cornerback Duane Starks and linebacker Peter Boulware. Jaguars receiver Jimmy Smith turned a 5-yard in-route into a 35-yard touchdown play, breaking free because Starks thought he was getting inside help from Boulware that never came.

The Ravens handed the ball right back when rookie Jason Brookins made the most costly mistake of his first NFL start. Trying to haul in a deflected pass, Brookins accidentally popped up the ball into the waiting arms of Jacksonville linebacker Hardy Nickerson at the Ravens' 45-yard line.

The Jaguars converted the Ravens' only turnover into a touchdown two plays later, when Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell eluded McCrary and found running back Stacey Mack in the back of the end zone for an 11-yard score.

Mack's touchdown raised Jacksonville's margin to 17-6 seven seconds into the fourth quarter, and he instigated the Ravens by spiking the ball into a crowd of Ravens fans.

"Once he did that, we had no choice. We had to defend our home turf," Sharpe said. `We really appreciate that gesture for getting us fired up. We were kind of sleepwalking emotionally, but [for motivation] you really didn't need much more than that."

The Ravens answered with a nine-play drive that took a surprising twist with a 13-yard reception by fullback Sam Gash and a 14-yard run by Jermaine Lewis. Brookins put on the finishing touch with a 2-yard touchdown run to close the deficit to 17-12 with 9:48 left.

"No one can stop me from 2 yards," said Brookins, who gained some redemption from his earlier miscue. "I'm 240 pounds. I can do that 10 times out of 10."

The Ravens' defense then did its part in the comeback by collapsing on Brunell. McCrary ended the Jaguars' next drive by beating tackle Todd Fordham to the outside and pulling Brunell down by the ankles.

That momentum poured into the game-winning drive that started with a fumbled snap and ended with an eloquent statement, putting the Ravens ahead 18-17.

"It was a character drive, plain and simple," Ismail said. "To be able to come back and never lose faith, it was awesome."

The next Jacksonville possession had similar results. On fourth-and-five at the Ravens' 44, Brunell had to hurry his throw because of defensive tackle Sam Adams bearing down on him, and the incompletion basically finalized the Jaguars' fourth loss in a row.

In the final 10 minutes of the game, the Ravens' defense refused to allow the Jaguars any closer than Baltimore's 43 in showing signs of its dominant past.

"This time, we proved we can get it done," Boulware said. "When it's on the line and up to the defense, we can get the job done. I think it's all about confidence. That was the theme of the week: just getting our confidence back."

Though the margin was slim, the victory provided a huge boost to end the Ravens' second month of their title defense.

"We're defending champions," McCrary said. "We don't plan on losing that championship easily. We've got to retain it."