SAN FRANCISCO — The Ravens had teased the San Francisco 49ers for nearly three quarters when some of the 49ers decided they had had enough. Crunch time had arrived.
"We're supposed to be one of the best teams in the league, and we're having trouble putting away a noncontending team at home," said 49ers free safety Merton Hanks. "We thought it was time for the defense to step up to end this thing. End of conversation. End of game."
Right end Chris Doleman slapped the ball away from Ravens quarterback Eric Zeier and recovered the fumble in the end zone on one of the game's biggest plays with 12: 08 remaining, as the 49ers defeated the Ravens, 38-20, yesterday before 51,596 at 3Com Park.
San Francisco quarterback Elvis Grbac scored on a sneak with 16 seconds left to finish off the scoring, but there was little doubt about the outcome after Doleman beat Ravens offensive tackle Tony Jones for the sack.
"We were never the same," said Zeier.
That was the play that turned the momentum, but the biggest may have occurred with a little under 13 minutes left in the first half when Ravens quarterback Vinny Testaverde was sacked and had to leave with bruised ribs and a hip pointer. Zeier, a second-year player who had limited playing time a season ago and none this year, replaced him.
The team took X-rays at halftime that were negative, and Testaverde is expected to play against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday at Memorial Stadium.
"I had a problem raising my arm," said Testaverde. "I was sitting here in the locker room watching the game on TV, and felt like I was letting my team down. A couple of times I took my shoulder pads to put them on, but I was just too sore.
"The defense was forcing turnovers and we had some decent field position in the second half," said Testaverde. "I'm not trying to take anything away from Eric because he did well under the conditions, but any player feels like that if they had played they would have made a difference."
Maybe. Maybe not.
The Ravens (3-8), who trailed only 17-13 at the half, had only four first downs and 54 total yards in the second half compared to 12 first downs and 214 yards in the first. Except for recovering a fumble deep in 49ers' territory early in the third quarter, the Ravens didn't get past their 44 for the remainder of the game.
Was it because of the offense's ineptness or the 49ers' defense?
"I really can't tell you what went wrong," said Ravens guard Wally Williams. "I know the offensive line didn't have any problems with protection, but I can't tell you about the receivers or what problems they had. I do know that the 49ers' defense executed better in the second half."
Zeier, who completed 10 of 21 passes for 97 yards, said: "On the first couple of snaps, I was just trying to get into the flow of the game. The game plan didn't change much except we ran a little less of the no-huddle. I think my feet got a little antsy and I didn't set them at times. But as the game went on, we had to play some catch-up and they made some plays."
One of them came with 13 minutes left in the game. That's when Zeier's pass intended for receiver Michael Jackson was intercepted at the 49ers' 47 by Hanks and returned to the Ravens' 45.
"Zeier gave me the chance on the pick. What I mean by that is that I saw the play coming my way and stepped right in front to make the play," said Hanks.
Then there was the sack by Doleman, who beat Jones to the outside to slap the ball out of Zeier's hand and recover it for the touchdown.
"Most QBs, when they're dropping back, are holding the ball so lightly that's it's not that tough to knock it out of there," said Doleman, a 12-year veteran. "Stripping the ball has been something I've been doing my whole career."
Jones said: "It was just one play. Up until that point, I thought I had played well against him. I wasn't having problems that I've seen some tackles have on film against him. I'll get back and take a look at the film to see what happened. Chris Doleman is a fine player. He is going to beat a lot of people."
That's a fact, and the Ravens faced another one yesterday: The 49ers (8-3) were simply a better team. Even after 49ers coach George Seifert called a timeout with 1: 01 left in the game, and then had Grbac sneak over from the 1, the Ravens didn't put up much objection afterward.
"I don't know their situation," said Ravens coach Ted Marchibroda. "Maybe they needed the points as far as the playoffs."
Said Ravens reserve safety Bennie Thompson: "They needed some momentum, some points for the playoff because they're still in contention. They thought it was going to be a cakewalk and they got a dogfight."
The Ravens started off strong, scoring on their first possession. It was quick, too. Two runs by Bam Morris netted 12 yards, then Testaverde threw a 65-yard touchdown pass down the left sideline to Jackson for a 7-0 lead.