These are the kind of games that help build winning football teams. The Ravens had a brilliant goal-line stand in the second quarter yesterday followed by a big reception by Michael Jackson. They got a big play in the form of a 69-yard punt return for a touchdown from Jermaine Lewis and a bigger play, a 60-yard interception return by Rod Woodson. No. 2 quarterback Eric Zeier did an excellent job in relief of Jim Harbaugh and Jay Graham provided a spark when he replaced running back Errict Rhett.
When the game had ended, the Ravens had defeated the New York Jets, 24-10, for their first win of the season before 70,063 at Giants Stadium, and received a desperately needed shot in the arm for morale.
Last year, six teams lost their first two games and not one advanced to the postseason. Since 1990, only 10 clubs have been 0-2 and made playoff appearances. It may be too early to talk about playoffs, but not about crucial situations.
"It's a big victory for us, it really is," said coach Ted Marchibroda, who had emotional, face-to-face confrontations with two of his own players on the sideline. "We didn't talk about it as a pivotal game, but maybe it was a pivotal game. It was a game we had to win. Starting 0-2 really would have been tough with what's ahead of us."
Said Ravens left guard Wally Williams: "It would have been very difficult to have lost this game. To have lost in the conference twice would have put us in a hole and sent a message to other teams. I think we let a lot of people know we're going to play hard all season."
Woodson virtually sealed the win when he stepped in front of a Glenn Foley pass intended for fullback Jerald Sowell in the right flat and returned it 60 yards for a touchdown that put the Ravens ahead 24-10 with 8: 44 left.
Fellow cornerback DeRon Jenkins finished the job when he picked off a Foley pass intended for wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson in the end zone almost four minutes later. Twice Johnson had burned Jenkins on short post or curl patterns. This time, Jenkins got a jump on the ball and went underneath Johnson, who ripped Jenkins' helmet off as both fell.
"I just felt that route and jumped underneath," Jenkins said. "I knew where Foley was going."
Woodson anticipated Foley's pass for Sowell just as well.
"It was weird. They had run the route before, but I was never aggressive with Wayne Chrebet in the slot," said Woodson, who also had 11 tackles. "This time, I got a jam on him and when I was dropping back, I saw the running back over my shoulder. I saw Foley look and then stepped in front."
In the clear, Woodson turned back toward the line of scrimmage at the 7-yard line before high-stepping into the end zone. But Woodson deserved to showboat a little. He opened the third quarter with an interception at the Ravens' 35 that eventually set up a 29-yard field goal from Matt Stover with 10: 16 remaining to put the Ravens ahead 17-7.
"Great job, especially Rod, he really read both of those plays," Marchibroda said. "He knew they were coming. You talk about wily veterans, well, Rod fits into that group. You could see how much he means to our ballclub and how much we needed a guy like that."
Except for a few lapses in the first half, the Ravens' defense was superb. It allowed 276 yards of total offense, only 60 in the second half. The Jets had 58 yards rushing, 45 by Curtis Martin in the first two quarters, as tackles Tony Siragusa and James Jones repeatedly got good penetration to disrupt the Jets' offense.
The Ravens didn't blitz as much as usual in the first half, when they were content to let the Jets try to run and throw short passes. New York tied the score at the end of the first quarter on an 11-play, 83-yard drive that lasted 4: 26. Foley had completions 18, 16, 23 and 19 yards before lofting a 4-yard touchdown pass to Johnson.
But the most telling plays of the half, and possibly the season, came after the Jets had gone from their 9-yard line to the Ravens' 3 on their next possession. On first-and-goal, Martin ran off left guard for 2 yards before being tackled by end Michael McCrary and middle linebacker Ray Lewis.
On second down, there was a huge hole off left tackle, but linebacker Tyrus McCloud quickly stuffed Martin for no gain. Lewis submarined Martin off left guard for no gain on third down, prompting a timeout by the Jets.
Coach Bill Parcells decided to stay with the run and sent Martin crashing off left tackle. McCrary, Lewis and safety Corey Harris tackled Martin for no gain with 3: 00 left in the half.
"We couldn't get the ball in there from the 2-foot line," Parcells said. "We discussed play-action. We were progressing toward the goal line. If you can't make that play, you've got trouble."
"They just kept running at me," said McCrary, light for a defensive end at 270 pounds. "I think they were trying to wear me down. But that's Parcells' mentality. He thinks he is tougher than you. He wants to shove it down your throat. They didn't need to go for seven, but they tried to be tough.
"Remember, though, we go up against the biggest offensive line in the league every day. We weren't saying a whole lot, but we were looking into each other's eyes. We knew somebody had to make a play."
Some of the Ravens took it personally. A couple of them were lightly beating on their chests during the Jets' timeout.
"We were saying, 'Bring it on, let's get on with the dogfight,' " said Lewis, who finished with 11 tackles despite a hamstring injury. "Next thing I know, I'm reading my keys and flying to the ball. All I saw was just a lot of people hitting each other."
Then the Ravens' offense took over. On the next play, Eric Zeier threw a 39-yard pass down the sideline to Jackson, who had beaten Otis Smith. Ten plays later, tight end Eric Green split strong safety Victor Green and safety Chris Hayes down the middle for a 20-yard touchdown catch that put the Ravens ahead 14-7 with 21 seconds left in the half.
"They were in a perfect defense for the play, locked up on one-on-one coverage on the outside," Zeier said. "That really took some pressure off the entire team. We were able to go 99 yards, and that turned the whole game around."
Said Marchibroda: "That could be the turning point of our season."
Zeier completed 13 of 20 passes for 173 yards and a touchdown after Marchibroda removed starter Jim Harbaugh, who struggled through a 5-for-10 performance for 36 yards before the Ravens' goal-line stand.
Marchibroda would not say which quarterback would start next Sunday at Jacksonville. Harbaugh is still bothered by tendinitis in his right elbow and a hyper-extended finger on his throwing hand.
"I didn't feel that I had anything to prove. I didn't try to play like I had anything to prove," said Harbaugh, who mishandled two snaps and underthrew a receiver. "In Ted's opinion, he needed to play the guy that gave the team a better chance to win. He felt Eric gave us a better chance. We came in to get a W, and that's most important."
Besides the quarterback situation, Marchibroda also has to decide on a starting running back as well as the future of Stover. Graham ran well despite gaining only 31 yards on 13 attempts. Rhett finished with 64 yards on eight carries, but 46 came on a late run after the outcome was decided.
Stover, who missed three field-goal attempts in last week's opening loss, was wide right on a 44-yarder that could have put the Ravens ahead by 10 points with 12: 01 left in the game.
"I don't mind Matt missing a field goal if he boots it through. I thought he was hesitant on this one, and I told him that," said Marchibroda, who was irate with Stover on the sideline and also had words with Bennie Thompson when he got an unsportsmanlike penalty on the kickoff after the Ravens had taken a 24-10 lead.
There won't be a change at punt returner. Jermaine Lewis gave the Ravens a 7-0 lead midway through the first quarter when he took a punt at the Jets' 31, started to his left for 9 yards, then cut back while also faking out two Jets. He picked up a nice block from Priest Holmes to get around the corner and then got another block from Duane Starks on punter Brian Hansen en route to a 69-yard touchdown.
"Overall, it was a team effort," Marchibroda said. "We got some big efforts from a lot of people. We can take a lot from this game."