BALTIMORE – Sunday's showdown between the San Diego Chargers and Baltimore Ravens was a perfect example of why the Ravens picked up quarterback Steve McNair before this season and why the Chargers might discard coach Marty Schottenheimer after it.
McNair, as he did last week and has so many times in a glorious 12-year career, engineered a last-minute drive for a 16-13 win in a contest that wasn't as surprising as it was exciting.
The Chargers threw their best shots at McNair and he didn't flinch. In fact, his body language basically said "bring it on" as he stared down three straight blitzes and then ran right at the Chargers' defense when it didn't blitz him.
Those four plays began a six-play, 60-yard march that culminated in a 10-yard touchdown pass to tight end Todd Heap with 34 seconds remaining. McNair completed four of five passes for 43 yards and ran for 12 more on the winning drive.
The moment left an indelible impression on Heap, who flashed a grin of great pleasure when asked to describe McNair's heroics.
"It's like he doesn't even take the hits," Heap said. "He just brushes his shoulders off and goes and makes the next play. It's really neat to see a quarterback handle himself the way he does. I like seeing that around here. I like having a quarterback like that around here that brings that toughness and that leadership.
"We're going to win a lot of ball games with him as our quarterback."
While that last-second work helped the Ravens to a 4-0 start and continued to erase the memory of so many close losses from a year ago (four losses by four points or less), the bigger issue is what didn't happen for San Diego.
More to the point, it's the lesson that Schottenheimer continues to miss in an otherwise solid career. As good as your defense might be, sometimes you have to deliver the knockout punch on offense.
Or as Schottenheimer put it: "This was the kind of game we expected."
Unfortunately, it was the kind of game that most people expected from him.
Schottenheimer reverted to the type of conservative play-calling that would make Ann Coulter complain. After building a 13-7 lead in the first half on the strength of a balanced offense, the Chargers called for running plays on 20 of their first 24 plays in the second half. First-year starter Philip Rivers, mostly efficient in helping build the lead, threw only nine passes in the second half. But five of the nine came in the final 34 seconds as San Diego desperately tried to come back.
The closest the Chargers got to scoring in the second half was a missed 40-yard field goal and a botched 52-yard attempt. In fact, San Diego's offense spent more time sniffing the grass of its own end zone than getting close to Baltimore's end of the field after halftime.
Worse, on the Chargers' penultimate drive, when they desperately needed to burn clock as they tried to drive from their 2-yard line, star running back LaDainian Tomlinson wasn't even in the game. Instead, it was Michael Turner. After the game, Tomlinson said it was his call on who should play.
That only begs the question as to why Schottenheimer would allow that. But again, questioning Schottenheimer's decision making in key situations is nothing new. Maybe that's why the Chargers were 0-5 in games decided by four points or less last season as they went 9-7 and missed the playoffs
For most of the game, Schottenheimer was obviously trying to protect Rivers from bad situations. But he went beyond the call of logic in doing that, even in the first half.
On two occasions in the first half, the Chargers had second down and needed only one or two yards for a first down with the ball from the San Diego 48-yard line and Baltimore's 27, respectively. Those are prime throwing downs for most teams.
Not the Chargers. On both plays, San Diego ran dive plays to fullback Lorenzo Neal, a man who is a skill-position player in name only. Neal has built his career on blocking. His two runs produced all of six yards. Now, the Chargers did combine to score 10 points on the two possessions, but the results only fed Schottenheimer's penchant for simplified offense.
Meanwhile, McNair was content to keep things similarly simple. He rarely took chances against San Diego's rugged defense, which features improved pass coverage. McNair threw balls away constantly. He threw two interceptions and had another potential touchdown pass fumbled away, but he remained unfazed by the moment.
Right up to the time he needed to be at his best.
"That's exactly what we were all expecting when he came here," said linebacker Ray Lewis, who has witnessed a parade of flawed quarterbacks during his 11 years. "He's the leader over there. We have an offense we can depend on now."