The noise has surrounded Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco from the first day of training camp, when there were questions about his ability to return from a significant left knee injury. Since then, Flacco has had to defend his play and his passion, his relationship with former offensive coordinator Marc Trestman and his decision-making under current one Marty Mornhinweg, and most recently, his ill-fated throw against the Philadelphia Eagles.
On Sunday afternoon, the noise will reach a zenith when Flacco leads the Ravens (8-6) into Heinz Field for a matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers (9-5). If the Ravens beat the Steelers and the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 17, they'll win the AFC North for the third time in Flacco's tenure. If they lose Sunday, the Steelers will be division champs and the Ravens may very well be out of postseason contention for the third time in four years.
This is the type of scenario that has brought out the best in Flacco in the past.
"When you dream of being in the NFL, you dream of going into hostile environments in high-pressure situations, where a lot is on the line and people are into it. You don't picture playing in front of 10 people like you do in high school for some of us. You picture going into a place and playing in front of 70,000 people that hate you. That's what makes it fun," Flacco said Wednesday. "I think we've all said it a bunch: There's not too many feelings in this world that are better than winning an NFL football game. That probably gets amplified a bit when you get to silence the crowd."
Before he led the Ravens on their Super Bowl run following the 2012 regular season, Flacco's defining moment was his go-ahead 26-yard touchdown pass to Torrey Smith with eight seconds remaining to give the Ravens a 23-20 victory over the Steelers at a suddenly quiet Heinz Field in 2011. Three years later, Flacco went into Pittsburgh in the AFC wild-card round and delivered two touchdown passes and a 114.0 quarterback rating in the Ravens' 30-17 win.
Playoff failures at Heinz Field marred two of Flacco's first three seasons, but the momentum has shifted in recent years. The Ravens have beaten Pittsburgh four straight times and in six of the past seven matchups, and they've also won two straight at Heinz Field. With Flacco as their starting quarterback, the Ravens are a respectable 5-6 in Pittsburgh, where the Steelers enjoy one of the league's best home-field advantages.
In 16 career matchups against the Steelers, Flacco has been the winning quarterback nine times. He has thrown 22 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions in those games.
"I can say this about Joe: I respect everything about what he does and how he does it and how he competes. The other stuff, the big-picture questions, are really for another time," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said when asked to evaluate Flacco's season. "I'm just excited to go play the game Sunday. I know Joe is and everybody is. We're preparing and planning on going and playing our best football. I do know he's had really good games in Pittsburgh. We need another great game from him in Pittsburgh."
It's been a difficult ninth NFL season for Flacco, who has fittingly worn some of the blame for the Ravens' offensive struggles, and been criticized widely by fans and even former teammate Ray Lewis, who questioned whether the quarterback has enough passion for the game.
Flacco has played in all 14 games, a significant achievement after he had both his ACL and MCL repaired last November. He'll enter Sunday's game just 212 passing yards shy of his first 4,000-yard season. He ranks fifth in the NFL with 3,788 passing yards, yet his 579 attempts are the second most in the league behind Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints.
Flacco ranks 27th in the NFL in yards per passing attempt (6.54) and 25th in quarterback rating (84.8) and his 13 interceptions are tied for the seventh most in the league. They also are the second most he's ever thrown in a season.
By most measures, he's having one of the most disappointing seasons of his career.
"We've had to throw the ball a lot more in a lot of instances," Flacco said. "It's tough to look back at the whole thing. We've hit our bumps here and there, but we're starting to hit our stride. When you come out here and watch our practices, you can tell. We're starting to hit our stride. The second half of the season, it's come together with some of the new guys, our offensive line play and myself. I think it's all come together at the right time and we're playing well lately."
The latest criticism of Flacco came after his fourth-quarter interception Sunday triggered the Eagles' comeback from 10 points down. At the time, the Ravens were in control of the game and the clock, yet Mornhinweg opted to throw the ball in what Harbaugh later called "the all-time worst [play] call ever." Flacco said he liked the play call — "My thought was 'Shoot, Marty is going to give me a third touchdown pass on the day," he said — but his comments came across as selfish to some fans.
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Flacco, though, didn't back down from what he said when asked Wednesday about the play call.
"We're not questioning anything on my part. My job is to go out there and run the plays and do them successfully," Flacco said. "Listen, we want to go ahead by 17 there and put the game out [of reach]. I think the more aggressive you are in those situations, the more it's going to pay off at the end of the road. Yeah, you might come up and bite yourself in the butt every now and again, but it's our job to recover and go win the game anyway. Last time I checked, we played the Eagles last week and we won the game."
Flacco, of all people, knows how much a strong finish can erase an otherwise disappointing season. He struggled at times during the 2012 campaign, when offensive coordinator Cam Cameron lost his job late in the year because of the offense's inconsistency.
As much as Flacco and the offense has struggled to this point, the narrative would change quickly if the Ravens went into Pittsburgh on Sunday and pulled out a win with their veteran quarterback leading the way.
"He's been in a lot of these big games, playoff games, you name it, and he's always performed well," Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta said. "We know what we're going to get out of him in crunch time and in critical situations, so it's a huge advantage for us, for sure."