Clutch drive alters course of Ravens-Steelers
The catch, with seconds left in the corner of the end zone to give Baltimore a 23-20 win, was Torrey Smith's moment of redemption.
But the Ravens' whole final drive belonged to Joe Flacco.
Up until that last, cathartic moment, when Smith got behind Pittsburgh's coverage and hauled in the game-winning score, the script looked all-too-familiar for the Ravens' quarterback.
In last year's playoff loss in Pittsburgh, Flacco made two costly second-half turnovers as Baltimore blew a 21-7 lead. With the division on the line in December, Flacco coughed up a fumble to Troy Polamalu, leading to Pittsburgh's game-winning score. All told, Flacco entered Sunday 3-6 against the Steelers, just about every single one of those losses coming in excruciating, heartbreaking fashion.
And Flacco's team was headed down that dark road again Sunday night. After streaking out to a 16-6 lead, the Ravens tightened up. Midway through the fourth quarter, with Baltimore still ahead 16-13 and facing a 3rd-and-8 in Steelers' territory, James Harrison hit Flacco and knocked the ball loose.
Pittsburgh recovered and, predictably, marched for the go-ahead score.
It looked like just another chapter in Flacco's frustrating history against the Steelers. Only this time, the Baltimore gunslinger had one more bullet in the chamber.
An incompletion and delay of game penalty forced Pittsburgh to punt on its next possession and kept the score at 20-16. Flacco had 92 yards to go and 2:24 remaining. Any other year, any other Baltimore trip to Pittsburgh and that final drive might have ended on another fumble or a poorly thrown interception.
But, Sunday night, Flacco was on target from the outset. He completed 6-of-10 passes to march Baltimore from its 8 to the Pittsburgh 26 with 28 seconds to go.
On first down, he spotted Smith, open down the left sideline, and dropped a perfect pass in over Smith's right shoulder. But the rookie watched it slip through his fingers.
It was Smith's second drop of the night, on top of a costly holding penalty on Baltimore's first offensive play, which negated an 80-yard Ray Rice touchdown run. Two plays after this miscue, though, after Anquan Boldin chipped in a dropped pass of his own, Flacco gave Smith another chance.
Once again, Smith found himself with room -- this time, down the right sideline, as he got behind William Gay and safety Ryan Clark failed to close in time. Just as seconds earlier, Flacco delivered a perfect pass, right where it needed to be.
With a second opportunity to be a hero, Smith seized the moment -- and the ball.
In doing so, he may have shifted the course of the AFC race for the entire season. Baltimore, 6-2 and with two wins over Pittsburgh, now finds itself in a first-place tie with surprising Cincinnati. The Steelers, meanwhile, are relegated to the spot the Ravens have gotten so used to -- looking up at the division leader. The Steelers, 6-3, are a half-game back in the AFC North and would lose the head-to-head tiebreaker with Baltimore.
Beyond the nuts and bolts of the standings, though, what happened Sunday night could alter Baltimore's future entirely.
No longer is Flacco just a sitting duck waiting for the Steelers to come get him. No longer is he just a good quarterback incapable of getting his team over the top in Pittsburgh.
Suddenly, because of one gutsy, clutch drive, Flacco hammered home to all of Steeler Nation that he's a force to be reckoned with.
He was brilliant in the Ravens' 35-7 Week 1 rout of Pittsburgh, of course, but Heinz Field had been his House of Horrors -- just about every trip ending with questions about Flacco's ability to get it done. If the Ravens couldn't get over the top against Pittsburgh, after all, how were they supposed to achieve their Super Bowl dreams?
Instead, not only did Flacco finally deliver in the clutch against his team's most hated foe, he did so repeatedly in the final seconds, with a hostile crowd screaming at a fever pitch.
You're forgiven if you were expecting another Flacco flop, especially after Smith and Boldin let him down on back-to-back plays. The way the night went, with Harrison returning from injury to record three sacks and force that critical fumble, it would have shocked absolutely no one if the Steelers' veteran linebacker had flown around the edge one last time, buried Flacco and created a game-ending turnover.
But on this night, Flacco refused to let his team lose.
Smith only had to wait 20 seconds to atone for his mistake. Flacco had been hoping, more or less his whole career, for a chance to silence the Steelers and prove he was the right man for the job in Baltimore. He wasn't about to let that moment slip through his fingers again.