The Ravens took another major step on their road back to the playoffs yesterday by making a detour down memory lane.
From another blocked field goal in Music City to Steve McNair re-connecting with Derrick Mason for a game-winning touchdown on their old turf, the Ravens' stirring 27-26 come-from-behind victory over the Tennessee Titans dripped with nostalgia.
A game that began with a standing ovation for McNair ended with the veteran quarterback throwing an 11-yard touchdown pass to Mason, his former Titans teammate. McNair's third touchdown pass of the game put the Ravens ahead 27-26 with 3:35 remaining, which was enough time for the Titans to move into field-goal range.
But defensive end Trevor Pryce blocked the 43-yard attempt by Rob Bironas with 43 seconds left in the game, preserving the biggest comeback victory (19 points down) in the Ravens' 11-year history.
Six seasons ago on this same field, the Ravens won a divisional playoff game when Keith Washington blocked Al Del Greco's kick and Anthony Mitchell returned it 90 yards for a touchdown.
Before yesterday's field-goal attempt, McNair said he told himself: "Here we go again."
"I was hoping that I was going to be on the good side of it now," said McNair, who had two of his young sons, both dressed in his Ravens No. 9 jersey, leaning up against him. "It was so strange and scary. It was all deja vu all over again."
In his first game against his old team, McNair set season highs in completions (29), passing yards (373) and touchdown passes (three).
It was an emotional homecoming, from fans holding signs that read "No. 9, you're still fine" to the 20-second montage on the LP Field scoreboard just before kickoff.
"Once we stepped out on the field, you could tell he was ready to go," said Mason, a longtime teammate in Tennessee. "You could tell this game meant just that little bit more. He wanted to go out there and play well. That's expected when you're with an organization for 11 years and they let you go. You want to come back and prove you can still play."
The Ravens' third straight victory improved their record to 7-2, their best mark ever after nine games. It also extended their lead in the AFC North to three games over Cincinnati (4-5) and tied Denver for the second-best record in the AFC.
"We want to be a championship team," receiver Mark Clayton said, "and these are steps that you definitely have to take if you want to win championships."
The Titans (2-7) looked more like the championship team early, taking advantage of the banged-up Ravens defense to take a 26-7 lead in the second quarter.
Already without linebacker Ray Lewis (back), the Ravens quickly lost his replacement, Mike Smith, who hurt his shoulder in the first series. The Ravens' middle linebacker became Dennis Haley, who was just promoted from the practice squad yesterday.
"We were making up defenses on the fly," Pryce said. "I had no idea what was going on half the time."
The Ravens regrouped during halftime, simplifying their scheme to a few basic calls to solve the Titans' offense.
In the first half, the Ravens gave up 26 points and 267 yards. In the second half, they shut out Tennessee and allowed 100 yards.
"We didn't match their emotion at the beginning of the game," linebacker Bart Scott said. "They hit us in the mouth and we took a standing eight count. But we came back and got the job done."
Some of the biggest wounds were self-inflicted.
The Ravens' tempers flared up throughout the game, as they received four penalties for poor conduct. Tony Pashos, Jonathan Ogden, Chris McAlister and even coach Brian Billick all received flags.
"The key for us at halftime was protecting the football and not killing ourselves with penalties," said McNair, who finished 29-for-47 passing. "I think we led the league in personal fouls today. The thing about it is we overcame them. That's the sign of a great football team."
McNair had his own problems to rectify. He stepped out of the end zone for a safety in the first quarter and threw two interceptions.
But McNair always seemed to answer with a big play, from the 65-yard touchdown to Mark Clayton in the first quarter to the 30- yard touchdown to fullback Ovie Mughelli in the second quarter.
"His demeanor never ceases to amaze me," Billick said. "I've never seen anyone with such amazing calmness."
McNair's third game-winning drive was short and succinct. Starting at midfield with 5:09 left in the game, McNair marched the Ravens into the end zone on four plays, the biggest coming on a 34-yard pass to rookie Demetrius Williams.
McNair then found a wide-open Mason in the end zone for their first touchdown connection as Ravens. The Ravens had Todd Heap running shallow in the end zone, which caused the safety to bite on the tight end and leave Mason running uncovered behind.
"It was a play that was meant to happen," Mason said.
After the teams traded punts, the Titans crossed into Ravens territory for the first time in the second half on their final possession. A 17-yard scramble by rookie quarterback Vince Young essentially put Tennessee in field-goal range.
Before the kick, defensive tackle Justin Bannan asked Pryce what to do. Pryce, the free-agent addition from the Broncos, replied, "Run over the guy in front of you."
Said the 6-foot-5 Pryce after the game: "I just have long arms, but Justin made the play. He cleared everybody out. I felt like nobody touched me."
The Ravens are close to becoming untouchable in their division. With a three-game lead and only seven games remaining, the Ravens are quickly closing in on their first division title since 2003.
"We couldn't allow this game slip away. For us to get this win was crucial," Mason said. "We just want this team to look forward and put ourselves in position where everybody - not just in our division - but everybody in the AFC is chasing us."