PITTSBURGH—Joe Flacco's exhilarating, last-minute 18-yard touchdown pass to T.J. Houshmandzadeh did more than elevate the Ravens to the top of the AFC North.
The Ravens' 17-14 triumph over the previously undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field marked Flacco's biggest step in going from a promising quarterback to an elite one.
Looking like a championship quarterback instead of a third-year prodigy, Flacco finished off the Steelers by standing in the pocket -- despite feeling the blitz coming from his blind side -- and delivering the ball into the hands of a wide-open Houshmandzadeh in the back of the end zone with 32 seconds left in the game.
In the Ravens' eyes, Joe Cool's coming-out party couldn't have come at a more perfect time.
"I think there are going to be a lot of defining moments for Joe, but this is going to be one of them," coach John Harbaugh said. "This is going to be one that all the Ravens fans are going to remember for a long time."
Trailing 14-10 with 1:08 remaining, Flacco methodically went to work in a no-huddle, shotgun offense, hitting all four of his passes to take the Ravens from the Pittsburgh 40 to the end zone.
The last two completions were a piece of football art. He hit Houshmandzadeh on an out pattern to the right sideline. It served more as a setup than a 10-yard gain.
On the next play, Flacco pump-faked to his right -- making it seem as if he was going to Houshmandzadeh on the same route -- and Pittsburgh cornerback Bryant McFadden bit on it. With the Ravens picking up the blitz on the left side, Flacco had enough time to wait for Houshmandzadeh to run free upfield and throw a strike to him.
The usually stoic Flacco celebrated as never before. He jammed his right fist high into the air. He butted helmets with Todd Heap. He chest-bumped his linemen.
"Once you've done it, there's not too many better ways to win a game," said Flacco, who was 24-for-37 for 256 yards. "It was awesome."
This was Flacco's sixth game-winning drive that came in the fourth quarter or overtime, but none of the previous ones had such high drama or meant so much.
The Ravens (3-1) moved into a first-place tie with the Steelers (3-1), although they have the edge because of Sunday's win. If the Ravens had lost, they would have fallen two games behind Pittsburgh just four weeks into the season.
"If you go back and look at the Montanas and the Elways, we can always remember those drives," said linebacker Ray Lewis, who sealed the win with an interception. "That's what makes a great quarterback. That young kid is just starting to develop."
Flacco has thrived as the Comeback King recently.
In a matter of days, he went from ridiculed (remember the four-interception game at Cincinnati) to revered (three touchdowns last Sunday against Cleveland). Then, before a volatile crowd of an announced 64,729, Flacco had to bounce back.
In the Ravens' second-to-last drive, Flacco missed on three throws inside the Steelers' 8-yard line. His fourth-down pass to Anquan Boldin fell so short that it hit Pittsburgh cornerback William Gay in the back of the helmet.
After the Ravens' criticized run defense shut down Rashard Mendenhall (79 yards on 25 carries), Pittsburgh gave the ball back to Flacco and the Ravens in its own territory. Flacco needed only 36 seconds to score on a Steelers defense that had given up just two touchdowns in its first three games.
His first two passes went to Boldin for 9 and 3 yards. His next one was the 10-yard toss to Houshmandzadeh before connecting with him again for their first touchdown together.
Flacco's first win at Pittsburgh featured as much style as substance.
"Games in your division and on the road are where quarterbacks can really elevate themselves," offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. "Those are the hardest ones to win. That's what separates the really good ones from the average ones."
Flacco's headlining performance was made possible by a strong supporting cast.
The Ravens' defense roughed up fill-in quarterback Charlie Batch (12-for-21 for 141yards and one interception) and showed why it's ranked No. 1 in the NFL in the third quarter.
After two turnovers by the offense (Willis McGahee's fumble and Flacco's interception) in Ravens territory, the defense didn't allow a first down and forced long field-goal attempts. Jeff Reed's 49-yard try hit the right upright, and his 45-yarder was wide left.
The defense's greatest lapse came in the fourth quarter, when Mendenhall's second touchdown capped a 93-yard drive and gave the Steelers a 14-10 lead.
On the next series, after the offense couldn't score from the 2-yard line, the defense redeemed itself by keeping Pittsburgh pinned and giving the ball back to the offense.
"I think we all have faith in our defense converting in that situation," Flacco said.
Flacco couldn't have led the Ravens to their second win in 11 trips to Pittsburgh without his offensive line.
He was sacked only once, and that was the result of guard Chris Chester blocking the Steelers' Casey Hampton into the quarterback. That's a major turnaround from last season, when Flacco was sacked nine times in two meetings with Pittsburgh.
"You can break down coverage eventually if you have a chance in terms of protection," Harbaugh said. "I think the credit goes to our offensive line. That's the best pass-rush group in the league right now, and our guys got them blocked."
In the end, the Ravens won because they had their franchise quarterback and the Steelers did not (Ben Roethlisberger served the final game of his four-game NFL suspension).
Said Cameron: "I can't imagine a better fit for the city of Baltimore and for this division than Joe Flacco."
Baltimore Sun reporter Ken Murray contributed to this article.
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