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Convincing victory should convince critics to ease up on Flacco

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist
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BALTIMORE -- Baltimore's Joe Flacco called Sunday's 35-7 demolition of Pittsburgh "huge," and I'll second that. I mean, if the Ravens are serious about winning the AFC North, going deep into the playoffs and getting to another Super Bowl, it's the Steelers they must vanquish.

But the victory was more significant for some than it was for others, and I have one guy in mind.

Joe Flacco, come on down.

He has been nothing short of consistent in his three years in the NFL. Not only did he reach the playoffs each season, he won at least once each season ... and always on the road.

But that wasn't enough because one thing he didn't do was beat the Steelers when Ben Roethlisberger was in the lineup. Six times he tried, six times he failed -- including twice in the playoffs. And until that changed, Baltimore seemed doomed, destined to finish second to an opponent that wouldn't move out of Flacco's way.

Until now, that is.

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That's why Sunday's victory was, as Flacco put it, "huge." Not only did he end his losing streak to Roethlisberger; he outplayed, outscored and outclassed Pittsburgh's quarterback. He didn't make the mistakes that sabotaged him and the Ravens in the past, and he didn't make the mistakes that sabotaged Roethlisberger and the Steelers on Sunday. In fact, he didn't make mistakes, period.

That wasn't how this story was supposed to play out, but then again nothing followed the script. The Ravens' offensive line was the weak link that Pittsburgh would expose. Only it wasn't. Pittsburgh's James Harrison was the pass rusher who would turn Bryant McKinnie inside out. Only he didn't. The Steelers' wide receivers would exploit Baltimore's vulnerable secondary. Only they couldn't.

And Flacco ... yep, he was the guy who would yield to Roethlisberger again ... only he didn't, and, trust me, that will make beating Pittsburgh again easier.

"The whole thing about ghosts, demons, monkeys on your back ... that's not real to us," coach John Harbaugh said. "It's a football game, and every game is a new game."

Yeah, except always with the same result: Roethlisberger beating Flacco and the Ravens.

When the two last played here, Flacco came this close to winning but fumbled the ball late in the fourth quarter -- a mistake that led to Roethlisberger throwing the winning touchdown pass. Then, when they met in the playoffs, Flacco and the Ravens raced to a 21-7 halftime lead, only to fizzle after committing three third-quarter turnovers -- including a Flacco fumble and interception.

Each game may be new, but around here ... around Flacco ... each game was Groundhog Day.

"We've beaten these guys before," said Flacco. "We'll beat them again. It's just another win."

No, it's not. It's a landmark win. Look, when the Steelers won the pregame coin toss, they chose to defer and play defense, and it doesn't take an Einstein to figure out why: Baltimore's offensive line had ... well, issues ... and the Steelers couldn't wait to put that unit on its heels and its quarterbacks on his back.

CBSSports.com Grades
Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh Steelers
C-
Pittsburgh was done after committing two turnovers in two offensive plays to start the second half. It couldn't establish the ground game with RB Rashard Mendenhall and QB Ben Roethlisberger was out of sync, throwing three interceptions. The defense looked a step slow as Baltimore had its way offensively.
Baltimore Ravens
Baltimore Ravens
A+
It was total domination on defense for Baltimore. The Ravens forced seven turnovers, which is a new franchise record. Plus,QB Joe Flacco got the monkey off his back by outperforming Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger, and earning his first win against the Pittsburgh starter. Baltimore made a strong statement.
By Jason Butt
RapidReports Correspondent

Only it didn't happen. It took the Ravens three plays to drive 66 yards, with Flacco dropping a perfectly thrown 27-yard pass in the hands of Anquan Boldin for the first of three touchdown passes. If there was a signal, that was it -- and the message was clear: Not here, not now, not anymore.

"Joe was good," said Boldin. "I don't think anybody in this locker room doubts him. We hear the rumbles; people outside this locker room saying this and that. Ask them what they have to say now."

I can only imagine. What I do know is they're not talking about Flacco's record vs. Big Ben anymore, and, yeah, I think that's big. I was in San Francisco in 1994 when critics insisted Steve Young had to win a Super Bowl. Ten years later, I heard Eagles fans talking about how Donovan McNabb had to win a conference championship game. Heck, I remember when all of us wondered when and if Peyton Manning would beat Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.

And then he did.

"I have a ton of faith in Joe," said offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. "Joe is a great quarterback. He's played really good against Pittsburgh in the past, but Joe never says a word if a play isn't made. Joe knows the heat comes with the territory, but he's played pretty darned good in those games."

But he didn't win, and that could make a difference for him and the Ravens from this day forward. Let's face it, Baltimore entered this game with as many question marks as new starters. Pittsburgh didn't, and it was easy to draw conclusions: The Steelers were better prepared to win, and maybe win easily because they were experienced, cohesive and unflappable.

Oh, yeah, and they just played in another Super Bowl.

So there were no mysteries about Pittsburgh. It would be the team it would be when it meets Baltimore in November. And the Ravens? Well, they needed time to mesh and would only improve as players and coaches became more familiar with each other. If nothing else, they could comfort themselves that a loss here wasn't all that significant.

Then Sunday happened, and now the question: What does it mean for them and their quarterback?

"You think you got a monkey off your back?" Flacco was asked.

"I don't feel one," he said. "You guys may have taken it off for me. So you don't have to continue to bother me. I feel good about the win, just like I would every week."

But this isn't every week. These are the Steelers, the speed bump that won't go away. These are the guys Flacco couldn't beat when Big Ben played.

Except he just did.

"There are always going to be critics," said Flacco. "Turn around 10 weeks down the road, and something might happen, and it's, OK, it's back again. [Do I think this will quiet critics?] Who knows? For the time being, maybe, but I doubt it will last too long."

Of course, that is up to Flacco and the Ravens. All I know is that he just removed another hurdle. He proved he can beat Roethlisberger, and he did it decisively. OK, so it's not a one-man game. Nevertheless, it's important that the guy who plays the most important position on the field knows he can do what he wants to do.

And now Joe Flacco knows.

"Realistically," said Cameron, "the way people think [the victory] doesn't hurt. You say it shouldn't be that way, but everyone makes these things out to be a big deal. And they just hammer, hammer and hammer, and just won't let up on a guy.

"So you say you probably do need it [because] that's the world we live in today. Everyone picks a quarterback apart until he beats the team maybe he's lost to a few times. But you've got to follow that up with consistent play, and there's no doubt in my mind Joe is going to do it. He's the real deal."

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