One does not have to look any further than last season to see how far the Baltimore Ravens have come as a football team.
The maturation process for the Ravens' young offense took a major step forward last night as it completed a 92-yard drive with eight seconds remaining on the road to beat their hated rivals, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Last season in Pittsburgh, Joe Flacco completed a four-play, 40-yard drive by hitting T.J. Houshmandzadeh for an 18-yard touchdown pass with only 34 seconds remaining. Many fans and experts immediately anointed Flacco as grown up and ready to play with the big boys.
Then came the rematch in December at home. With the Ravens ahead and driving, Flacco inexplicably dropped back to pass on 2nd-and-5 from the Ravens 43 instead of handing the ball to Ray Rice and killing time on the clock.
Steelers safety Troy Polamalu came flying in off the edge and sacked Flacco. He stripped him of the football and, inevitably, the Ravens of their season. The Steelers recovered the fumbled, and five plays later, Ben Roethlisberger led his team to the game-winning touchdown, the division crown and, eight weeks later, a trip to the Super Bowl.
All because of the loss, the Ravens were once again the AFC's top wild-card team and subsequently had to travel to Pittsburgh in the playoffs. You know what happened, and you know what happened back in Week 1 this season.
The Ravens destroyed the Steelers 35-7, rubbed their noses in the loss, but experts were quick to remind everyone that it was just Week 1, and the game that mattered would be the rematch, which this year would be played in the Steel City.
Since then, both teams seemed headed in opposite directions. The Steelers had just won four straight games, their quarterback was white hot and they were coming off a huge win over their nemesis, the New England Patriots.
The Ravens seem headed south for the winter. Despite leading his team to its biggest come-from-behind win in franchise history, Joe Flacco was coming off six of the worst quarters in his career. Baltimore was one-half of a football game away from losing its second straight game to a one-win team.
Then came the much anticipated rematch on Nov. 6, and the Ravens—as they always seem to do, no matter where or when the game is played—jumped out to the early lead.
For the eighth time in the past nine games, the Ravens led the Steelers at halftime.
They did not make any mistakes and led the Steelers by 10 points heading into the fourth quarter. This, as every Ravens fan, knows is a recipe for disaster, and indeed disaster would strike. For the Ravens, and in the words of the great Yankees catcher Yogi Berra, "It was like déjà vu all over again."
With 7:40 remaining, Flacco dropped back to pass, and this time was sacked at the Steelers 42 by James Harrison. Just like last year late in the fourth quarter, he was also stripped of the football. Steelers cornerback William Gay recovered and it took six plays for Big Ben this year as he once again transformed Flacco's turnover into what Ravens fans just knew was the game-winning touchdown.
On the run to his right, Roethlisberger threw a dart that just got past the outstretched arm of Ravens cornerback Cary Williams and was caught by Mike Wallace in the end zone for a 26-yard touchdown.
Game over, Roethlisberger and the Steelers break the Raven hearts once again.
Not so fast.
Just as he did last year, Flacco would get the chance to lead his eighth game-winning touchdown drive.
Here is the Ravens' final drive, play by play. It is complete with down, distance, time remaining and one little tidbit about the game or the series.
Enjoy, Ravens fans, I know I sure did.
Time Remaining: 2:24
Formation: Shotgun, three wide receivers, tight end David Pitt and running back Ray Rice split in the backfield next to Flacco
After completing his night with a career-best third straight 300-yard game, Ben Roethlisberger could only watch as the Steelers' No. 1-ranked pass defense took the field against the much-maligned Joe Flacco and the Ravens' recently struggling offense.
Big Ben was 20-of-37 for 330 yards and one touchdown. Despite being intercepted by Terrell Suggs in the red zone, Roethlisberger frustrated Ravens defenders all night. Surprisingly, and for whatever reason, Ravens defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano did not blitz Roethlisberger nearly as much as he did back in Week 1.
The Ravens defense, which came into the game second in the NFL with 25 sacks, registered just one on No. 7.
NBC's Chris Collinsworth said before the start of the drive, "This is a long road against a great defense."
Flacco began the drive 21-of-34 for 208 yards, no touchdowns and one lost fumble, his fifth of the year.
Play: The first play of the drive did not bring much promise of things to come. Flacco was under pressure as he dropped back to the goal line. He managed to sling an incomplete pass out of bounds, which was intended for tight end Ed Dickson.
Time Remaining: 2:16
Formation: Same formation as first down. The Ravens had Torrey Smith wide right with Anquan Boldin in the slot. Dickson and Rice again split the backfield with Flacco.
Play: Boldin, who last week literally took over the game during the Ravens' come-from-behind win over the Arizona Cardinals, came off the line of scrimmage and immediately took the inside route on Steelers cornerback William Gay. Flacco again took a seven-step drop and, from the goal line, fired a strike to Boldin coming across the middle at the 22-yard line. Boldin gained seven additional yards after the catch, and the Ravens registered their first first down of the drive.
Play was stopped following the catch due to the two-minute warning. The Ravens entered the drive with one timeout remaining.
Last week during the second-half comeback versus his old team, Boldin showed why he was such a valuable acquisition for the Ravens. He caught five passes for 117 yards and drew three pass interference penalties totaling 33 yards. Baltimore outscored the Cardinals 24-3 in the second half to complete the largest comeback in franchise history.
Time Remaining: 2:00
Formation: Boldin started in motion to the left but settled back into the right side as the Ravens continued to employ a three-wide receiver set to right side of the field. Flacco remained in the shotgun, with only Rice by his side this time.
Torrey Smith wasn't the only rookie wide receiver on the field from the University of Maryland during the final drive on Sunday night. LaQuan Williams, who was signed as an undrafted free agent following the lockout, lined on the left side all alone.
With just two catches on the season, the Steelers felt confident Williams was a non-factor and placed little-used BD Keenan Lewis on him. Lewis has played in just 22 games in three seasons and wasn't able to gain any position on Williams once the ball was snapped.
Flacco immediately recognized this and fired the ball to Williams, who made the catch but was unable to get out of bounds and stop the clock. The completion gained 13 yards and moved the ball ever so closer to midfield.
Following the game Williams was asked how he felt being new to Steelers-Ravens rivalry and his response was he wasn't new to it. He grew up in Baltimore as a Ravens fan. He attended Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, where he played on the football team as a quarterback and safety. The Baltimore Sun named him a second-team All-City player as a junior and a first-team All-City defensive back as a senior.
Williams had a great training camp and began to turn the coach’s head in the preseason game versus the Eagles with a three-catch, 46-yard performance. Flacco continued to run the Ravens hurry-up, no-huddle offense to perfection, as his best throws were yet to come.
Time Remaining: 1:35 at snap
Formation: Smith wide right and Boldin in the slot. Williams split wide left, with Rice in the backfield.
Play: On the snap, Flacco immediate looked for and went to Rice. However, he rushed the throw and it was high. The ball bounced off Rice's hands and was almost scooped out of the air by none other than Troy Polamalu.
This would not have been the first, second or even third time No. 43 in black and gold ended a day for the Ravens. We already know about the strip-sack-fumble last December, but the biggest disappointment Head and Shoulders bestowed upon the great fans of Baltimore came during the final minutes of the 2009 AFC Championship Game.
With the Ravens trailing by just two points, and driving for what may have been the game-winning field goal, Polamalu intercepted Flacco and returned the ball 40 yards for the game-clinching touchdown.
However, the future Hall of Fame safety has been slowed by injuries during the past several seasons and did not seem to have the speed late in Sunday's game to get to the ball.
Luckily for the Ravens, and after staying in the air for an eternity, the ball hit the ground, and apparently with it dropped the Steelers' chances of once again finishing off the Ravens.
The incomplete pass stopped the clock with 90 seconds remaining.
Time Remaining: 1:30
Formation: For the first time on the drive, the Ravens line up two receivers to each side. Flacco remains in the gun and, aside from the almost-interception by Polamalu, has not come close to making a mistake. Rice remains in the backfield.
Play: From the slot, Boldin slides underneath the Steelers' loose coverage and catches another strike from Flacco. He lays down as the Steelers' Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu are there for the tackle but gains a very valuable nine yards.
With the play, the Ravens cracked the Steelers' side of the field, as the ball was spotted at the Pittsburgh 49-yard line.
NBC's camera work during the drive is nothing short of phenomenal. On this occasion, cameras pan to Ben Roethlisberger, who continues to wear a towel over his face covering everything but his eyes, which are beginning to show signs of concern.
Al Michaels says, "Roethlisberger has done his job.” Little did anyone know, Flacco was preparing to finish his, and this time it wasn't going to end in disappointment.
a disgusted Larry foote
Time Remaining: 1:09
Formation: The Ravens again employ double receivers to both sides of the field with Rice in the backfield.
Play: Flacco drops back and sees LaQuan Williams come open on a quick in. However, Flacco does not see Steelers linebacker Larry Foote and throws the ball right to him.
This is how I knew that luck, which always seems to find the Steelers in this series when it matters most, was somehow starting to favor the Purple and Black on this night.
Even though the pass was high, Foote had more than a shot to haul it in but could not corral the throw from Flacco, and the Ravens for the second time in three plays would live to play another down—albeit fourth down, but at least it was still a shot.
This was the first third down of the final drive, and one of the few Baltimore failed to convert on the night. To this point in the game, the Ravens were an astounding 12-of-19 following this incompletion. One of the top third-down defenses in the NFL was allowing the Ravens to convert at 63.1 percent.
However, the Ravens would need to convert their only fourth0down attempt of the night, and if you remember last year's game at Heinz Field, you remember the Ravens didn't come close to converting on fourth down.
Time Remaining: 1:06
Formation: The Ravens go to a more basic and tighter shotgun formation, with the tight end on the line of scrimmage. Torrey Smith is spread out to the right, with LaQuan Williams in the right slot. Boldin is now on the left side slot. The adjustment of moving moving Boldin to the other side would pay dividends on this play.
In the words of Al Michaels, "Flacco able to keep it [drive] alive, as Boldin makes the catch."
Play: Boldin continues to beat William Gay like a drum from the slot and picks up 10 yards and the first down. If ever there was a time to "move those chains, move those chains, move those chains,” this was it, Raven fans.
Flacco was worthy of being called Joe Cool on this drive, and was as calm as a Hindu cow. The pass to Boldin on fourth down had touch and floated into his big wide receiver's arms, as Flacco never blinked.
The Ravens offensive line was pushing the Steelers defensive line around like rag dolls. Pittsburgh was tired and simply unable to mount any type of pass rush.
The looks of worry began to escalate as NBC continued to show Big Ben, and each time the towel seemed to cover more of his eyes, which was hiding the worry he obviously felt.
The worry was evident on the final drive
Time Remaining: 48 seconds
Formation: Two wide receivers split out on each side, with tight end Ed Dickson lined up in the right slot.
Play: Dickson runs a quick two-yard out and Flacco hits him in stride, as he is able to get out of bounds, stopping the clock. The play by Flacco enables the Ravens to hold onto their lone timeout. The Steelers seem to be pulling their coverage tighter, and Flacco notices.
Time Remaining: 42 seconds
Formation: Three wide receivers. Williams has now slid to the right, while Boldin and Smith and moved to the left side. Rice and Pitta are in the backfield.
Play: The play takes time to develop, as the Steelers blitz Flacco heavily. Rice and Pitta hold their ground and pick up the Steelers' blitzers allowing Flacco time to step up in the pocket. He spots Smith, who has gotten past cornerback Ike Taylor.
Safety Troy Polamalu is helping put on the other side and can only watch. Not only does Smith beat Taylor, but beats him after being grabbed at the 5-yard line by him.
After stepping up in the pocket to avoid the pressure, Flacco lets go with a beautiful pass that looks as though it is going to drop right into the rookie's hands for his fourth touchdown of the year.
The ball drops perfectly over Smith's shoulders but goes off his fingertips, as he appears to slow down and fails to fully extend his arms on the route.
NBC analyst Chris Collinsworth put it best when he said, "That's a championship moment right there; it's not a simple catch, but a catch that has to be made."
Smith cost the Ravens a 76-yard touchdown run by Ray Rice, when he was called for holding on the game’s first play from scrimmage. The call was more than questionable, but his drops problem is not.
Despite his three-touchdown performance against the Rams, Smith has struggled pulling the ball in at times. His drops do not seem to bother his quarterback, as Flacco continues to throw the ball the rookie’s way. Smith has been targeted 43 times this season.
Twenty-seven of those passes to Smith have been via the deep ball. That is 62.8 percent of the time, which leads the NFL by a wide margin over another former Terp, Darrius Heyward-Bey.
Time Remaining: 35 seconds
Formation: Three wide receivers with Boldin in the slot to the left. Dickson and Rice are still lined up in the backfield.
Flacco looks to convert his first third down of the drive and 13th of the game. He does, as the Steelers still do not have an answer for stopping Boldin out of the slot. Flacco hits the veteran on a perfectly timed route, in which he picks up 11 yards.
Boldin managed to get out of bounds, stopping the clock with 28 seconds remaining in the game.
Pittsburgh takes its last time out to catch its breath, but it's simply too tired to stop Flacco and a Ravens offense that now seems to be perfectly in sync—most notably Anquan Boldin.
This was Boldin's final catch of the drive, but not the final time Flacco would target him. He would finish with four catches for 51 yards on the game-winning drive.
With last week's second-half performance, Boldin has shown how valuable and clutch he is to the Ravens offense. Boldin has caught 10 balls for 177 yards. He has also drawn four interference penalties for 56 yards.
Time remaining: 28 seconds
Formation: Four wide receivers, with two lined up on each side. Only Ray Rice remains in backfield. Dickson and Boldin are in the slots, with David Reed (right) and Torrey Smith (left) out wide.
Play: Flacco looks to take his first of two shots to the end zone. He cannot resist the single-man coverage the Steelers refuse to stop playing. On this particular play, Steelers DB Ike Taylor cuts off David Reed's route into the end zone, causing Reed to have no play on Flacco’s pass.
Flacco gets plenty of arm on the throw and no one other than Reed has a shot to make the play. Only five seconds elapse on the clock, as the Ravens still have 23 seconds and one timeout remaining.
Time remaining: 23 seconds
Formation: Boldin back in right slot, with Reed and Smith still split out wide to different sides. Sensing the Steelers may be coming with more blitzes as they get closer to the goal line, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron beefs up the protection and, like everything else on the drive, is right on the money. Rice and Dickson continue to aid Flacco by lining up next to him in the backfield, but on the snap of the ball, Dickson floats out of the backfield as a receiver.
Play: The Ravens offensive line continues to pound the Steelers, although the Steelers seem to be getting a bit more of a push. Flacco senses the extra pressure and is stepping up perfectly with his throws and does so again with this one, hitting Boldin right in the hands with the ball.
For the second time in the last three plays, a Ravens wide receiver loses concentration as Boldin drops the pass and buries his head into his hands. Never at a loss for words, Chris Collinsworth does not make Ravens fans feel any better by saying, "Joe Flacco doing a great job on this drive, and his receivers are completely letting him down."
Flacco remains calm, and what happens next can only be described as a thing of beauty.
Time remaining: 14 seconds
Formation: Torrey Smith is wide right, Boldin in the right slot and David Reed is wide left. Once again, Dickson and Rice are in the backfield. Flacco, as he has been the entire drive, remains in the shotgun.
Play: Al Michaels starts the game-winner off with "Flacco again protected well,” but he didn't need much time, as he immediately noticed Smith was running by right by Ike Taylor. Safety Ryan Clark failed to back in time to cover, and Flacco delivered a perfect strike.
This time Smith hangs on, and the Ravens come from behind to defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers. Reed celebrated on the sidelines, while Flacco, who didn't know that Smith scored at first, jumped into his lineman Marshall Yanda's arms when he realized it was indeed a touchdown.
There was a flag on the play, but if you watched the game you knew it was against the Steelers. William Gay—as well as Ike Taylor—was holding Smith more than a first-time mother holds her newborn baby all night long.
There should have been a flag on the drop Smith had in the end zone. The irony is that many want to know how it is possible any Ravens receiver could get behind the great Steelers secondary this late in the game. Weren't we all asking that very question in January Ravens fans when Antonio Brown got past Lardarius Webb?
It happens, and this time it happened to the Steelers in Pittsburgh.
Final Score: Ravens 23, Steelers 20
Flacco was simply brilliant on the drive. He was 7-of-13 for all of the 92 yards.
He finished with 300 yards passing and became just the fifth quarterback since the NFL merger to throw for 300 yards with no interceptions in a win at Pittsburgh.
He had plenty of help. His offensive line, which crushed the Steelers back in Week 1, wore down an aging unit once again. Steelers fans can say they were missing James Farrior and LaMarr Woodley and that had a big effect on the outcome, but I say you had them In September, and the outcome was worse.
"No Hines Ward," they are crying, "Ray Lewis hit him with a cheap shot." Well, I say "What goes around, comes around." As far as I am concerned, the Ravens still owe Ward a few more for some of his antics and cheap shots pre-rule modifications.
The Raven were simply the better team, the ferocious Steelers defense could not get off the field all night long. The Ravens were 14-of-21 on third-down conversions, which is the best any team has done on third down against any Pittsburgh defense since the merger.
The Ravens proved Week 1 was not a fluke; they proved that this is their year, at least when it comes to the Black and Gold. I do not believe these teams will play again. I don’t think Pittsburgh is good enough. It is now 1-3 versus teams with a winning record, and aging weekly.
The Steelers' only win versus a viable team was against what appears to be an average Patriots team, which possesses the worst defense in the NFL. If you think what Flacco did was brilliant, Eli Manning did it twice versus the Patriots defense yesterday.
Let's no go overboard with Flacco. This was the best drive of his career, but remember what happened the following week after he led the Raven over the Steelers back in Week 1. He looked horrible in Tennessee the following week and has been average at best since.
Next week the Ravens travel to Seattle, and Flacco must do better than 184 net passing yards and two interceptions, which was what he did in Nashville.
I am one of those critics John Harbaugh talked about when he was throwing around some Theodore Roosevelt after the game on Sunday night.
When asked about Flacco’s critics Harbaugh said to reporters:
The people that want to write about it and want to be the naysayers, it's not the critic who counts. It's the man who's in the arena, whose face is covered with blood and sweat and dust. He will never be with those poor and timid souls and know neither victory nor defeat. So, that's what I say to those critics. They don't count.
I may not count, but I know how to count, and I know that right now, winning two games and sweeping the Steelers will mean nothing if Flacco loses in the arena now known as Century Link Field next Sunday.
This was a huge win for the Ravens, and potentially a career-changing drive for Joe Flacco. However, it must be put away in its proper place, and Flacco must build on this instead of using it as a hall pass for his next bad performance.