With the Ravens' 16-14 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals before an announced crowd of 50,917 at Cinergy Field, the Ravens (6-9-1) finished last in the AFC Central for the second straight year, guaranteeing a home game with the Indianapolis Colts next year at the new stadium in Camden Yards.
The loss also put the Ravens in position to pick 10th in the NFL draft in April.
"It's a tough loss. I think the better football team won today," said Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda. "It was an excellent football game this time of year with two teams that were finishing strong.
"I'm extremely pleased with our football team. I think, finally, the players are beginning to believe they're a good team. We're only going to get better. They tried to get better these last three games and they certainly did. I think there's a bright future for this team."
The Ravens have a lot of things working in their favor. Their defense is young, aggressive and at times dominating. They have one of the youngest teams in the league and also have slightly more than $7.1 million freed up under the salary cap next season to sign free agents and draft choices. Marchibroda said the coaching staff will remain intact as the team moves into its new $220 million stadium.
The problems? A lot of them were evident again yesterday. The Ravens' offense is inconsistent and the team doesn't have a definite No. 1 starter at quarterback. The Ravens don't make enough big plays and they still have problems pulling out games in the closing minutes.
With 1: 40 left yesterday after a 12-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Eric Zeier to tight end Eric Green, the Ravens, trailing 16-14, tried two onside kicks from Matt Stover.
The first went out of bounds and the Ravens were penalized 5 yards for an illegal kick. The second went about about a foot short of the required 10 yards before Ravens running back Priest Holmes jumped and picked the ball out of the air and started dashing toward the Bengals' goal line.
But the officials ruled that the kick did not go the required distance. End of season.
"After the first opportunity, I saw they weren't aggressive at the 10-yard mark," Holmes said. "So on the second attempt, I wanted to make something happen. It would have been a great way to go into the next year. I knew the ball was close, but I thought it was over."
Marchibroda's conclusion will come upon further review.
"It was a tough call, an awfully tough call," he said. "You think where the player was, but by the same token, was the ball over the line? The player may not have been over, but was the ball over the line? Maybe next year, things will go our way."
The Ravens had chances to win long before that play. But they couldn't convert on a fourth-and-inches at the Bengals' 22 with 2: 39 left in the third quarter, when Zeier was stopped on a quarterback sneak against the worst rushing defense in the league.
The offensive line also failed to protect Zeier when he dropped back, yielding seven sacks.
And Stover's 44-yard field-goal attempt was wide right with 9: 03 left in the contest. It was his fifth consecutive miss, two of which were blocked.
"We've had a lot of losses by one point the last two years because we missed a field goal or dropped a pass or something," said Ravens right guard Jeff Blackshear. "I'm getting tired of saying next year, next year, next year. What about now? We've got to get back to the same offensive game plan we had a year ago. We need to get it all together."
Left guard Wally Williams said: "We're a physical team up front and we need to stop letting teams dictate to us what we have to do."
The Ravens had no rushing game yesterday, gaining only 51 yards on 17 carries, 24 of those on a reverse to slot receiver Jermaine Lewis. Zeier continued his pattern of slow starts and wasn't nearly as impressive as his last two starts against Seattle and Tennessee.
Zeier completed 28 of 41 passes for 349 yards, but the Bengals' defense confused him early with a number of different defensive looks, including putting eight -- sometimes nine -- players on the line of scrimmage.
"We wanted to bring as much pressure and give as many different looks as possible," said Bengals safety Sam Shade. "We knew we could stop their running game. We wanted to make them one-dimensional and put the game in Eric Zeier's hands. We were able to confuse him and he seemed off-rhythm."
Zeier, asked about his slow starts, said, "I don't know, I still haven't played a lot of football. When you sit out the first 11 or 12 games of the year, it's tough to get in the rhythm of the game. For the past two weeks, we've come out a little slow and sluggish and picked it up in the end, and we want to maintain that level throughout the game."
The Ravens' biggest play was a broken play with 10: 02 left in the third quarter. On third-and-seven from the Ravens' 17, Zeier stepped up in the pocket, scrambled to his right and lofted a short pass to receiver Derrick Alexander at the 38. Alexander blew by free safety Bo Orlando, who had slipped at the 45, then outran safety Greg Myers the final 50 yards to complete the 83-yard touchdown that tied the game 7-7.
"It was a scramble play, I got behind the defense and made the play," Alexander said.
The Ravens had few big offensive plays and the Bengals had just enough. Middle linebacker Ray Lewis was all over Bengals rookie running back Corey Dillon, who had rushed for more than 100 yards in each of his past three games. Dillon had only 60 yards on 24 carries yesterday.
The Bengals' Boomer Esiason was the hottest quarterback in the league entering yesterday's game, but the Ravens smacked him around quite a bit and Esiason looked nervous in the pocket most of the afternoon.
But the Ravens' inexperienced secondary got burned early and late. The Bengals scored on their first possession, going 77 yards in nine plays.
The big play in the drive was a 34-yard pass from Esiason to tight end Marco Battaglia on a crossing route down to the Ravens' 11. Two plays later, Ravens rookie safety Ralph Staten was suckered on a play-action fake and Esiason found Battaglia all alone for an 8-yard touchdown pass in the right corner of the end zone.
The other big play, the game-winner, came off another play-action fake. Esiason connected with wide receiver Darnay Scott over the middle at the Ravens' 40 and Scott outran cornerback Antonio Langham the rest of the way for a 77-yard touchdown with 3: 41 left in the game.
Both of the Ravens' rookie safeties, Staten and Kim Herring, got beat on the play as Scott ran in front of Staten and Herring was nowhere to be found.
"Two guys were responsible on that play and they didn't read the signs," said Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis.
"We've made a lot of improvement," said Ravens rookie outside linebacker Peter Boulware. "[Cincinnati] was scoring like 30 points a game against everybody and they kicked Dallas all over the place last week. The future is bright for this defense, we're leaving here on an upbeat note."
And what about the offense?
The offensive line probably will return intact, though the team needs to upgrade at left guard and at fullback. Also, Green, Alexander and running back Bam Morris are unrestricted free agents.
And then there is the quarterback situation. Zeier played well in two of the three games he started in place of veteran Vinny Testaverde. The Ravens also may entertain thoughts of trading up in the draft to select a franchise quarterback with one of the first four picks.
But Marchibroda, asked about his possible starter entering training camp next July, said, "Right now, I haven't made any decision on that."
Yesterday's loss to the Bengals dropped the Ravens into the basement of the AFC Central for a second straight season, but it also assured them of a fifth-place schedule and a home game against the Indianapolis Colts next season. The Ravens' 1998 nondivision opponents:
Home ............... Away
Indianapolis ....... San Diego
Oakland ............ N.Y. Jets
Detroit ............ Chicago
Minnesota .......... Green Bay
Pub Date: 12/22/97