A LOSS TO the 2002 Raiders in the AFC Championship Game personifies Steve McNair's 13-year career as a tough-as-nails NFL quarterback, mostly for the Tennessee Titans.
Understandably, that game — a 41-24 defeat — might not define your memory of McNair, who was mysteriously murdered Saturday in Nashville, Tenn.
You will remember him as "Air McNair," an Alcorn State phenom and the third overall draft pick in 1995 by the then-Houston Oilers.
You will remember his Super Bowl XXXIV loss, where his final pass came 1 yard short of a game-tying touchdown against the 1999 "Greatest Show on Turf" St. Louis Rams.
You will remember him as the NFL's co-MVP with Peyton Manning in 2003.
You will remember the Fourth of July bombshell: His reported mistress (a 20-year-old waitress) and McNair (a 36-year-old retired quarterback, community icon, husband and father of four sons) were found shot to death in what may have been a murder-suicide.
But you should take time now to reflect back on Jan. 19, 2003.
McNair led the Titans into a rowdy Oakland Coliseum that day against a Raiders juggernaut that, nearly four months earlier on the same field, pinned a 52-25 loss on Tennessee.
"There's no better place to be than the Black Hole today. Let's go!" McNair said into an NFL Films camera during pregame warm-ups.
Over the game's ensuing 60 minutes, he said so much more, with his actions, leadership and typical grit. Sound bites from that game — broadcast later on HBO's "Inside the NFL" — captured McNair's essence.
After the Raiders scored a touchdown on the game's opening series — a Rich Gannon pass to Jerry Porter — McNair answered with his own touchdown strike. He slipped while taking his seventh step back in the pocket, steadied himself with his left hand and then found Miramonte High product Drew Bennett with a 33-yard spiral.
"Hey, way to work. Hey, way to work," McNair told Bennett on the Titans bench after the play. Raiders 7, Titans 7.
Back came the Raiders, with another touchdown pass by Gannon. Raiders 14, Titans 7.
"McNair has often been bent, but his spirit never truly proved broken, though he's faced the ugliest of foes and taken the hardest of hits," narrator Harry Kalas said on that "Inside the NFL" segment, with video rolling of McNair's chest getting thumped by Raiders linebacker Bill Romanowski.
"No matter how many times he was knocked down this season and this game," Kalas continued, "No. 9 kept getting back up and getting his team into the end zone."
With 2 minutes, 47 seconds left in the first half, McNair gave the Titans their only lead. He scored on a 9-yard touchdown run, colliding with cornerback Charles Woodson and linebacker Napoleon Harris at the goal line. Titans 17, Raiders 14.
"The toughest man in football right there," Titans defensive end Kevin Carter said on the sideline. "That's what I'm saying, Steve. Take 'em on your back."
Two fumbles and a botched punt crushed the Titans' momentum but not McNair's spirit.
"Keep your eyes on No. 9 at all times! Keep your eyes on No. 9!" Raiders defensive line coach Mike Waufle told his unit.
"All season, teams have targeted No. 9, and all year Steve McNair has been a titan in the pocket," Kalas continued. "Last Sunday he continued to stand tall, refusing to fall in the face of the pass rush. Resolute and impossibly brave, McNair even made seemingly impossible completions."
He made the Titans' deficit only 27-24 when, with 31 seconds remaining in the third quarter, he scored his second rushing touchdown on a 13-yard run.
"I used my arms and I used my legs," McNair said in a gracious postgame news conference. "In games like that you have to use whatever you can to win a ballgame." (Note: Before retiring in April 2008, he joined Steve Young and Fran Tarkenton as the only NFL players to pass for more than 30,000 yards and run for more than 3,500.)
Upon reaching his sideline after his second touchdown run, McNair implored his teammates: "Let's take this. Now come on."
The Raiders took control, however. Two fourth-quarter touchdowns sealed what stands today — six seasons later — as the Raiders' last playoff victory.
For McNair, it was as close as he would get to reaching one more Super Bowl.
"McNair played like a true warrior," Raiders coach Bill Callahan said postgame. "He had no quit in him, no die in him."
Alas, no happy ending came for McNair — neither in that game, nor in his life.
Contact Cam Inman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Former NFL quarterback Steve McNair went 7-4 all-time against the Raiders and 49ers, including the 2002 season's AFC Championship Game. Here's how it breaks down, with home team in CAPS:
16-for-33, 143 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT
26-40,229, 1, 0
25-38, 269, 2, 1
21-36, 194, 1, 0
32-46, 398, 2, 4
15-27, 178, 1, 2
12-20, 114, 0, 1
13-25, 182, 1, 1
29-43, 214, 0, 0
23-41, 343, 3, 1
5-9, 45, 0, 1
*AFC Championship Game