The Ravens have their first quarterback controversy. It's Eric Zeier against Vinny Testaverde. Or is that Vinny Testaverde against Eric Zeier? A decision on the quarterback of the future, or at least of next week, will be made in the next 72 hours, but for at least one night Zeier and return specialist Jermaine Lewis will celebrate the significant roles they played in the Ravens' 31-24 victory over the Seattle Seahawks before 54,395 at Memorial Stadium yesterday.
Lewis, a former University of Maryland star, accomplished a feat only nine others have achieved in the NFL by returning two punts for touchdowns in a game, one 89 yards and the other 66. He also caught a 29-yard touchdown pass as the Ravens (5-8-1) won for the first time since Oct. 26, ending an 0-4-1 skid.
Zeier, making his first start as a Raven in place of the injured Testaverde, completed 17 of 28 passes for 302 yards. He threw some tight spirals across the field on out routes. He had some fine touch passes, including the one to Lewis for a touchdown that tied the score at 24 with 4:42 left in the third quarter, and a 92-yarder to Derrick Alexander, which set up Bam Morris' game-winning touchdown, a 1-yard run off left tackle with 10: 42 left in the game.
Zeier moved well, made a few heady calls and fumbled only once, which wasn't his fault. Vinny who? There were chants of "Zei-er Zei-er!" echoing in the stadium.
"I think we did a good job as an offense," Zeier said. "We didn't have such great field position in the first half, but I think we did a good job in the second. A lot of credit has to be given to a lot of people for hanging in there.
"I can't say how I played. I'll have to take a look at the film," said Zeier, a third-year player out of Georgia who is considered more of a mobile, out-of-pocket quarterback than Testaverde, who at 6 feet 5 is 4 inches taller. "It's not my decision on who will play, I just want to go out, improve and do whatever it takes for us to win some football games."
Testaverde, out with a strained left knee, spent most of yesterday on the sidelines in full gear working with quarterback coach Don Strock and coach Ted Marchibroda. When Zeier came off the field, one of the first people to approach him and offer guidance was Testaverde, who has been criticized by fans and the media after throwing 15 interceptions this season.
Testaverde is expected to be 100 percent healthy when the team begins practicing Wednesday.
"That's Ted's decision," said Testaverde about the starting job. "Whatever he decides has to be OK. If I'm a starter, obviously, I'll be happy about that. But if I don't, I'll be ready to play and support this team and support Eric."
Most of the players didn't want to participate in the debate.
"The man who makes the money to make those decisions will make that one," said center Wally Williams. "I just play the game."
Marchibroda said: "It seemed like in the second half you could see the confidence in Eric growing, along with the team confidence, so the second half was a good half for him. Vinny was limping a little bit on Friday, so I had to go with Eric, so I think I'll wait until Wednesday to make that decision."
Marchibroda won't have to make a decision on Lewis. He was only the fourth NFL player to return punts for scores in the same half. His 308 combined yards set a Ravens record, and his three touchdowns tied another.
The first punt return for a touchdown came with 9: 38 left in the second quarter. Lewis took the ball at the 11, started to his right, changed back to the left around the 20, burst through the wedge untouched, stumbled at the 40 and then gave a quick stutter-step move to elude punter Rohn Stark at the 50. He went untouched the rest of the way to put the Ravens ahead 10-9.
The second one came with 35 seconds left in the half. Lewis caught the punt at the Ravens' 44, burst outside down the right sideline, got a great block from Bennie Thompson on Stark at the 35, and finished off the run that tied the score at 17 going into the half.
"I don't even think I could have thought about two touchdowns in one game," Lewis said. "It's just so hard to get a return for one. I got two. That's so satisfying. Two people did it this year, but I just want to thank 'Strike Force' for giving me the blocks."
Seattle (6-8) had allowed two blocked punts and a kickoff and punt return for touchdowns in its previous four games.
"I saw Jermaine coming through and there was only Stark left," Thompson said of Lewis' second return. "Jermaine said, 'Get him, Bennie, get him,' so I blew him up. I really blew his butt up. I knocked the stuffing out of him. I'm going to be on ESPN highlights for that, then holding up my No. 1 finger. I haven't been there all year. We knew coming in that Seattle had some weak special teams, so we were prepared to get some big plays."
But still, the Ravens almost lost because of big plays they didn't make. Matt Stover missed two field-goal tries, including one of 42 yards that would have sealed the game with 1: 05 left. A pass went through the outstretched hands of tight end Eric Green in the end zone late in the first quarter. Slot receiver Ryan Yarborough lost a fumble at the Seahawks' 20 after a catch late in the second quarter. Michael Jackson dropped a long potential touchdown pass early in the third quarter.
Then there were the Ravens' giveaways. A fumble by running back Bam Morris at the Ravens' 16 with 10: 01 left in the first quarter led to a 4-yard touchdown run by Lamar Smith. Guard Ben Cavil was beaten by defensive tackle Dan Saleaumua for a sack of Zeier in the end zone for a safety with 11: 31 left in the half.
And then there was the Testaverde oops, the Zeier-Williams moment when they blew the snap exchange and Seattle linebacker Chad Brown scooped up the fumble and ran 42 yards for a touchdown that put Seattle ahead 17-10 with 2: 35 left in the half. The center said the ball slipped out of his hands, which were wet.
"In the first half, we tried to give the game away," said Marchibroda. "Finally, in the end, we started to make the big plays."
A lot of them came from the defense.
The Seahawks came into the game with the No. 1-ranked passing offense in the league, and the Ravens' secondary was without two starters. But the Ravens made four interceptions, two by rookie safety Ralph Staten, and the defensive front seven pummeled quarterback Warren Moon for four sacks and bruised ribs.
Ravens defensive end Michael McCrary played well against his old teammates with a team-high eight tackles, and outside linebacker Peter Boulware had two sacks. They hit Moon on back-to-back plays in the second quarter, bruising his ribs and eventually forcing him out of the game in the fourth quarter.
Some of the Ravens were surprised that Seattle didn't throw more, considering the Ravens had two rookies starting in the secondary. The Seahawks didn't go after cornerbacks DeRon Jenkins or Donny Brady a lot, either. Seattle completed 17 of 34 passes for 199 yards but also had 27 rushing attempts.
"It's been pretty physical the last three weeks for me, and it was physical today," Moon said. "I bruised my ribs in the first half, and I got hit by Boulware and then McCrary the next time in the same spot. They really came after me. They played a lot of two-deep coverages, which doesn't allow you deep too much. They wanted to take away the deep ball, and they did a good job discouraging us from doing it."
The only big pass that hurt the Ravens was a 20-yarder that wide receiver James McKnight turned into a 60-yard touchdown in the third quarter after Brady missed the tackle.
"Even after that one, we just wanted to stay focused," Staten said. "We're young, but we wanted to be aggressive. Every time they beat us, we just wanted to work harder. I thought they were going to throw at us a lot more."
Many of the passes being caught yesterday were by Ravens receiver Derrick Alexander, who had been benched for the previous 5 1/2 quarters. Alexander had six catches for 150 yards and set up Morris' final touchdown with a stop-and-go move that turned into a 92-yarder, the longest pass completion of the year.
Morris, starting for injured rookie Jay Graham (ankle injury), finished with 86 yards rushing on 24 attempts and finished off the Seahawks' playoff aspirations with the 1-yard touchdown run.
"Any win is a big win, and this gives us something to build on," said Williams. "Where we go from here? I hope it's up."
The Ravens just need to know who is leading now. Is it Zeier or Testaverde?
Ravens 31, Seahawks 24