Last Call Brings Baltimore Down
By Ken Denlinger
CINCINNATI, Ohio, Dec. 21 The Baltimore Ravens had one last chance to beat the Cincinnati Bengals today and avoid last place in the AFC Central for the second straight year. But reserve running back Priest Holmes touched the ball about a yard too soon on an onside kick he controlled with 99 seconds left and the Bengals won, 16-14.
The Ravens (6-9-1) argued that Holmes was beyond the 10 yards required for the Ravens to gain possession. The officials ruled otherwise—that he fielded the ball about nine yards from where Matt Stover kicked it and then landed across the line. Television replays seemed to verify their call.
"I knew it was close," Holmes said. "In my mind, I was over the line."
Holmes had that opportunity because quarterback Eric Zeier drove the Ravens 59 yards in eight plays, one of them a 37-yard catch-and-run by wide receiver Michael Jackson on fourth and 11. Then, he hit tight end Eric Green in the end zone from the Cincinnati 12.
That surge came immediately after the Bengals (7-9) had stretched their lead to 16-7 on a 77-yard touchdown pass from Boomer Esiason to open wideout Darnay Scott. Doug Pelrey, who earlier had kicked a 44-yard field goal, hit the left upright with his extra-point try.
After the Bengals struggled early in the season, Esiason replaced Jeff Blake as the starting quarterback, helping the Bengals win four of their past five games. Esiason, 36, completed 63 percent of his passes for 1,357 yards, 11 touchdowns and 2 interceptions in the five games he started.
The Ravens were familiar with down-to-the-wire drama for most of the season. Six of their losses were by 15 points—and Coach Ted Marchibroda said, "I think there’s a bright future for this football team."
However, half of Baltimore’s victories were by six points.
The Ravens allowed Esiason to strike early—and late—with touchdown passes. The first, an eight-yard pass to tight end Marco Battaglia, came on the opening possession and ended a 77-yard drive in which Battaglia also beat rookie safety Ralph Staten on a 34-yard completion.
"I had a late read," Staten said of Battaglia breaking free on the right side of the end zone. "I tried to make up for it, but was too late."
Staten and the other rookie safety, Kim Herring, were involved in the winning play, the 77-yard pass to Scott. As Esiason was eluding the Ravens’ rush, Scott took advantage of some hesitation by Staten, broke free about midfield and caught the pass in stride. Herring was supposed to provide help.
"A misread and no reaction," Baltimore defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis said. "Sometimes, you get lucky and the quarterback can’t see that far. Not so with Boomer."
Zeier (28 of 41 for 349 yards) and wideout Derrick Alexander had a similar play in an 83-yard completion that tied the game at 7 with 10 minutes 2 seconds left in the third quarter. Zeier escaped a rush and, near the line of scrimmage, hit Alexander at about the 30. Reserve cornerback Jimmy Spencer fell just before Alexander caught the pass, and safety Bo Orlando couldn’t make the tackle a few yards later.
The positive Baltimore offensive plays were countered by seven sacks and several penalties. Pro Bowl left tackle Jonathan Ogden was beaten for one of the sacks and also was flagged once for holding.
"I’m not commenting on that [stuff] right now," Ogden said.
Zeier suffered his first loss in three starts since moving ahead of Vinny Testaverde. During those games, he has completed 58 of 97 passes for 855 yards and seven touchdowns. He has not been intercepted.
"But he’s a little young yet," said Marchibroda, alluding to Zeier having started just seven games during his three-year career.
When asked if there would be open competition at quarterback during training camp, Marchibroda said, "I’m not sure."
Zeier said: "The stats are secondary. You always want to win. I’ll work as hard as I can to get better."
Individually, two Ravens achieved impressive season-long goals. With 48 yards in receptions, 25 yards on punt returns, 44 yards on kickoff returns and a 24-yard run from scrimmage on a reverse, Jermaine Lewis went more than 2,000 yards in all-purpose production.
Also, Alexander went more than 1,000 yards in receptions for the second straight year. A free agent, Alexander said he was "hopeful" about signing with the Ravens.
Running back Bam Morris also is a free agent who wants to return to the Ravens. "But that’s not up to me," he said.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company