The 23-20 comeback victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers Sunday night represented the defining moment of quarterback Joe Flacco's young career, and could mean much more to the Ravens as they enter the second half of their season.
When a poised Flacco capped a 13-play, 92-yard drive by hitting rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith for a 26-yard touchdown pass with eight seconds to play, the Ravens thwarted another gut-wrenching defeat at the hands of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, earned their first regular-season sweep of their rivals since 2006 and thrust themselves into ideal position for the playoff run.
They are tied with the surprising Cincinnati Bengals, not only for first place in the AFC North but for the best record in the conference heading into Sunday's game against the struggling Seattle Seahawks. They also now hold the tie-break over Pittsburgh, meaning that if the Ravens beat the teams that they are supposed to beat the rest of the way, they could be looking at a first-round bye and at least one playoff game at M&T Bank Stadium.
"It's a big accomplishment," Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said after Monday's victory. "In my eyes — to be totally honest with you — [the Steelers are] the defending AFC champs. So they're still the team to beat, but if we play Raven football throughout, we'll see them again in January, and they've got to come to our house. We swept them, but don't be fooled. We're going to have to see this team in January. Like I said, we just positioned ourselves for them to have to come to M&T so we can do [it]."
The Ravens haven't had a home playoff game since 2006 and two of their past three seasons have ended with playoff losses to the Steelers in Pittsburgh. For the Ravens to visit Heinz Field again this season, the Steelers would have to make up two games in the standings. Only three of the Ravens' last eight games are against teams currently sporting winning records.
"I told them, 'We'll probably see you guys again,' " said middle linebacker Ray Lewis. "But if we see them again, hopefully it's on our terms."
Ravens coach John Harbaugh was predictably more focused on the present and the not-so distant future at his news conference today. However, he is undoubtedly aware that the division hierarchy could be decided in the next four weeks as the Steelers face the Bengals Sunday and then again Dec.4, while the Ravens will play Cincinnati for the first time Nov. 20.
"The mathematical implications are definitely there, but it doesn't mean much if you go out and don't win your next game and your next game and your next game," Harbaugh said today. "At the end, it's how many wins you have compared to how many somebody else has and then the tiebreakers come in at that point. You just have to keep stacking wins. That's why you talk about one week at a time. In the National Football League, every week your season is on the line. That's why we try to point to this Sunday and make that the most important thing we do."
Still, Harbaugh admitted that the team spent part of Monday trying to come down from the emotional high that came from beating its biggest rival in the waning seconds. After the game, Harbaugh quoted Theodore Roosevelt and scripture. Running back Ray Rice said that over the last six quarters, Flacco is playing better than any quarterback in the NFL, and the stoic Flacco had trouble containing his excitement.
"This game was huge. Anybody that follows the Ravens knows that this is a huge game," said wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who finished with seven catches for 88 yards, for of them coming in the game's decisive drive, including a 10-yard catch on 4th-and-1. "Last time we were in this stadium, we left with a bitter taste in our mouth. In the offseason, that drove us. We definitely had to stick it to them and show them that we're the better team."
Asked earlier what the comeback victory meant for his much-maligned quarterback, Boldin said, "Maybe people will stop putting him down now. We know what kind of quarterback we have. There was no panic with our offense and I think you saw that. A lot of that starts with our quarterback."
Flacco hit Boldin for completions of 21, nine, 10 and 11 yards. He also hit rookie wide receiver LaQuan Williams for 13 yards and tight end Ed Dickson for two before finding Smith, who beat Steelers cornerback William Gay, in the corner of the end zone. Smith had dropped four passes in the game, including one earlier in the drive that would have went for the go-ahead score, but he had no problems handling this one.
"Joe was the same in the huddle as he was every single time," said Smith. "He was calm, confident, a little more fired up, [like] 'Come on, let's go win this game.' He's the same person he always is — relaxed. He was definitely confident that we could get it done."
Said linebacker Jarret Johnson: "The way he managed the offense, the way he managed the clock, the throws he made, you can't say enough about it. It was just a huge drive. It was absolutely one of his best games."
Against the league's top-ranked passing defense, Flacco went 28-for-47 for 300 yards and a touchdown and set a franchise record by converting 14-of-21 third downs. He out-dueled the Ravens' long-time nemesis in Roethlisberger, who dug the Steelers out of a 16-6 fourth-quarter deficit and gave them the lead with a 25-yard touchdown pass to Mike Wallace with 4:59 to play.
However, the Steelers left enough time for Flacco to engineer the ninth game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or later in his career.
"I don't know what it means. It means that we're 6-2, that we beat Pittsburgh two times, so we put ourselves in good position for the division," Flacco said. "But we've got a lot of good teams that we still have to beat."
The Ravens were also aware that the last time they beat the Steelers — a 35-7 victory in Week One — they followed it up by playing poorly in a 26-13 loss against the Tennessee Titans. The Seahawks have lost three consecutive games and have been outscored 63-28 in the process.
"We're at the halfway point, and we feel like we've put ourselves in a good position," Johnson said. "We're 6-2, but we've got a tough one coming up this week, a West Coast trip, and if we don't go out and play well next week, it's just going to put us back in a hole. We need to capitalize this week and make this win really mean something."
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has now led nine game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime during his career, including ones in consecutive weeks. Here is a look at them:Date/Opp.Drive lengthScoring playTime leftScore11/2/08 at Clev.5 plays, 59 yds in 1:54Stover 22-yd FG5:3630-27*1/10/09 at Tenn.9 plays, 51 yds in 3:30Stover 43-yd FG0:5313-109/13/09 vs. KC8 plays, 74 yds in 3:15 Clayton 31-yd TD pass2:0638-2411/29/09 vs. Pitt.6 plays, 17 yds in 3:23 Cundiff 29-yd FG6:42 (OT)20-179/26/10 vs. Clev.10 plays, 69 yds in 5:41 Boldin 27-yd TD pass9:1321-1710/3/10 at Pitt.4 plays, 40 yds in 0:36 Houshmandzadeh 18-yd TD pass0:3217-1410/24/10 vs. Buff.4 plays, 9 yds in 1:58 Cundiff 38-yd FG10:54 (OT)37-3410/30/11 vs. Ariz.5 plays, 37 yds in 0:52 Cundiff 25-yd FG0:0030-2711/6/11 at Pitt.13 plays, 92 yds in 2:16 T. Smith 26-yd TD pass0:0823-20* - was in the AFC divisional playoffs