PITTSBURGH ——It was interesting to tune into sports talk radio in the Steel City prior to Sunday's game between the Ravens and Steelers, if only to hear an opposing city's take on quarterback Joe Flacco. For several hours, caller after caller checked in to state the belief that Flacco, who was just 1-5 in Heinz Field prior to last night, would never play well enough to lead the Ravens to a win.
A parade of hosts joined the chorus. All the Steelers had to do was rattle him a little, they believed, and he'd give the game away. Just look at the way he played against Jacksonville, and against Arizona in the first half. Just look at his history in Pittsburgh.
The Ravens fourth-year quarterback — who has certainly struggled at times this year — had the ball in his hands down four points with less than three minutes remaining, and all he did was drive the Ravens 92 yards for the game-winning score. Even when it looked like he was going to run out of magic, when Torrey Smith dropped a pass in the end zone with 35 seconds left, Flacco didn't rattle. He simply stepped up three plays later and threw a 26-yard touchdown strike to Smith.
It was a stunning turn of events, and might just put to rest four years of questions about whether or not Flacco can perform in big moments. He finished the game 28-of-47 for 300 yards, but those numbers hardly do justice to how clutch he was on Sunday. He wasn't flashy, but he spent most of the night carving up the Steelers with short, quick throws, especially on third down.
The drives didn't always result in touchdowns, but Flacco's throws kept the chains moving and kept Baltimore's defense on the sidelines. Even when the Ravens' wide receivers dropped passes — and they dropped at least six — Flacco didn't rattle. He simply continued to zip passes through small windows for big completions.
The Ravens offensive line, which benefited from the return of Ben Grubbs, gave Flacco plenty of time to set his feet for the first time in weeks, and he responded with his best game. The Ravens, in fact, started the game by converting 12-of-16 on third downs.
On the Ravens' first drive of the game, Flacco converted three times on third down, hitting Ricky Williams, Dennis Pitta and Anquan Boldin on short patterns to keep the drive alive. The result was a 3-0 lead when Billy Cundiff booted a 18-yard field goal.
The following drive, Flacco was equally sharp on third down, hooking up with Pitta (on 3rd-and-7) and Torrey Smith (on 3rd-and-9), moving the ball 56 yards before Cundiff missed a 40-yard field goal. Instead of dwelling on a missed opportunity, Flacco came right back and drove the Ravens down the field for two more field goals, including one that gave them a 9-6 half time lead.
Even though Flacco led the Ravens on a third quarter drive that gave them a 16-6 lead on a 4-yard touchdown by Ray Rice, it looked like things were going to unfold in a familiar fashion after Ben Roethlisberger threw a touchdown to Mike Wallace to make it 20-16. Once again, it seemed like Roethlisberger conjured up magic in Heinz Field that Flacco could not.
But the Ravens final drive, which began at the 8-yard line, was a thing of beauty. He zipped passes to Boldin, to LaQuan Williams, and to Ed Dickson to get the Ravens to mid-field. Facing a 4th-and-1 at the 49-yard line, he fired a bullet to Boldin to keep the Ravens alive.
Two plays later, it looked the Ravens might suffer yet another oh-so-close loss in Pittsburgh when Flacco hit Smith in the end zone, only to have the ball go right through Smith's hands for his fourth drop of the game. But Flacco didn't hesitate to look Smith's way again with 14 seconds remaining, connecting for what — to this point — might be the biggest throw of his career. Smith had his arm grabbed by William Gay on the play, but he still reeled in the pass as he was falling to the ground, silencing the crowd at Heinz Field.
In celebration, Flacco pumped his fist and filled the void with a howl that might have been heard all the way back in Baltimore.