PITTSBURGH -- All that stood in front of Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco and a career-defining moment were 40 yards and 11 players on the NFL's top-rated defense, many of them ready to pin their ears back with the desire to slam him violently to the ground and end the game.
Oh, and his team trailed the Pittsburgh Steelers by four, there was just 1:08 left in the game and Flacco had no timeouts to use.
Four pass plays later, with the ball never touching the ground, the Ravens were in the end zone -- courtesy of an 18-yard shot from Flacco to T.J. Houshmandzadeh -- for a stunning 17-14 victory over the Steelers at Heinz Field.
You wouldn't think a burly 245-pound fullback would have the best take on a young quarterback, but Ravens fullback Le'Ron McClain nailed it Sunday when asked about Flacco.
"There should be no more questions about Joe Flacco," McClain said. "Not that there should have been in the first place, but this puts that talk to bed."
Sleeping soundly now.
Flacco was one of the toasts of the league as a rookie two years ago, when he led the Ravens to the AFC Championship Game here. Future star was stamped all over his forehead. But in the year-plus since, Flacco has earned a reputation for checking down too much and not being aggressive enough. He even earned a step-up-in-2010 comment from Ravens owner Steve Biscotti after last season.
That made Year 3 a big one for him, although you would never know it. That's why he has earned the nickname Joe Cool.
That nickname was challenged the last time he played on the road. At Cincinnati in Week 2, Flacco was picked off four times in a 15-10 loss. He was 17 of 39 for 154 yards. It was as ugly as the numbers, maybe worse.
So as he readied for Sunday's game, the question was whether Flacco could do enough to beat the Steelers defense. Even a run-first team like the Ravens doesn't run on the Steelers, so they had to get more out of the passing game.
Flacco responded. He hit 24 of 37 passes for 256 yards and the game-winning touchdown with 32 seconds left to stun the crowd and give the Steelers their first loss of the season.
|More on Ravens-Steelers|
OK, so the Steelers were playing with Charlie Batch, their fourth quarterback, but anytime you can beat the Steelers on the road, it's a big deal.
In a game featuring two of the nastiest defenses, two teams that hate each other, it came down to the passing game.
Doesn't it always in this league?
"There's not too many better ways to win a game when you're coming to Pittsburgh," Flacco said after the game. "We were fortunate enough to get the ball back because of our defense, but I felt like we just got into a little groove."
On the previous series, the Ravens had a chance to take the lead. They had a first down at the Steelers' 8, but Flacco threw three incomplete passes, including one on fourth down, to give the Steelers the ball at the 3 with 2:40 left.
The Steelers then bungled their possession with two false starts and didn't even try a pass before punting the ball. That strategy will be questioned. One first down and the game would have been over. Instead, the Steelers opted to turn it over to their defense, basically telling the Ravens that their offense wasn't good enough.
"If I can put my defense on the field around midfield and somebody has to have a touchdown to beat us, I'll take my chances with that," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.
The Ravens saw it another way.
"I think that was [an insult] to us," McClain said. "They didn't think we could do it."
Taking over at the Steelers' 40, Flacco hit Anquan Boldin for 9 yards and then for 3 yards and a first down at the 28. The next play he hit Houshmandzadeh on a 10-yard out in front of a loose-covering Bryant McFadden.
|Joe Flacco had a solid game and the defense limited Pittsburgh to 210 yards of total offense. On the downside, two turnovers in their own territory could have spelled doom if not for the defense. Baltimore had seven penalties for 52 yards.|
|The Steelers made too many mental errors which resulted in 11 penalties for 88 yards. Jeff Reed missed two critical field goals and the defense faded in the fourth, an eerie reminder of last season.|
|By Brian Carson|
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That set up the next play, which was the winning score. The play was simple, an out and up by Houshmandzadeh. McFadden bit on the double move and Flacco, standing tall in the face of a blitz, fired a bullet into the stomach of the wide-open Houshmandzadeh for the score.
The Steelers did nothing when they got the ball back with 28 seconds, putting the Ravens at 3-1, the teams tied atop the AFC North. Both should be happy about where they are now. The Ravens have played three of four on the road to open the season. The Steelers played four games without suspended quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who will be back in two weeks when they play Cleveland.
Flacco now has five touchdown passes and five interceptions for the season. The past two weeks, he has completed a combined 46 of 68 passes for 318 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions.
Amazing stat of the season: The Ravens have thrown at least 31 times in each of their four games. That's high for a group known for being a running team. So are they morphing into a passing team as Flacco grows up?
"We're still a running team," McClain said.
You would expect that from him, since he's a back, so I asked elsewhere.
"This is still a run-first team," receiver Derrick Mason said.
Houshmandzadeh hinted that he wasn't exactly happy with that after the game. He said he hadn't been used much the past couple of weeks, at least not until the final drive.
"I think we're evolving," Houshmandzadeh said. "When you've done something for so long, it's hard to change when you've had a little success. It's been a rough two games for me, to be honest with you. I would be lying to you if I said things weren't going through my head. We're going to evolve."
Flacco might have proved it's time to do just that. The Ravens ran for just 70 yards on 27 carries. That 2.6 average won't win many games, which is why Flacco's performance was so vital.
It will be even more so the rest of the way. This is his team now, even if there were doubts about it before Sunday.
That's why so many writers wanted to ask Ravens players if this was a defining moment for Flacco's career.
"I hope not," Mason said. "I hope there's a lot more."
There will be, but this is the kind of game that can stamp a quarterback. When you do what Flacco did to the league's top scoring defense, it speaks volumes.
Even if Mason won't say it, I will. This was Flacco's defining moment, one Ravens fans will look back on years from now and say that their quarterback needed to cover 40 yards to show he had arrived.