By Dejan Kovacevic, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Monday, November 7, 2011
Joe Flacco(notes) #5 of the Baltimore Ravens drops back to pass against the Pittsburgh Steelers during the game on November 6, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
The ball sailed from Joe Flacco's fingertips, high into the night sky above Heinz Field, and the standing, roaring crowd of 64,851 suddenly fell silent with what I'm guessing was an equally dark thought.
Oh, no way.
The trajectory appeared good. So did the touch. And the receiver, Torrey Smith, was running right under it toward the corner of the end zone.
Touchdown with eight seconds left.
Baltimore 23, Steelers 20.
Yeah, there was a way. And for the home side, the path was a punch to the gut.
"It just hurt," cornerback William Gay was saying late Sunday night, shaking his head a bit. "AFC game. Division rival. For it to come down like that, it hurt."
The game, he meant, not the ball.
See, this wasn't about one play, spectacular as this one was from the Baltimore view. This was about the entire 13-play, 92-yard drive in which Flacco dissected the Steelers' No. 1-ranked pass defense as if he were facing Arizona or Indianapolis. This was about a total disintegration in a two-minute span. This was about an epic deflation after overcoming a 10-point deficit in the fourth quarter.
"Worst drive ever," Gay called it.
This, maybe, was about a changing of the guard in the AFC, too. It's the 6-2 Ravens now tied atop the conference standings with Cincinnati, and it's the 6-3 Steelers suddenly in third place with the Bengals on tap next week.
Moreover, let's come right out and say it: It's about Flacco.
No more Chokin' Joe or Floppin' Flacco, Pittsburgh. The man stood under his team's goal posts with 2:24 remaining and went boom, boom, boom down the field, converting one fourth down and two third downs, even overcoming two drops along the way.
"You have to give Joe Flacco credit," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "He got the job done."
"He won the game," counterpart Ben Roethlisberger said. "He's a good player, and he stepped up when needed."
Is there a scarier thought for the Steelers than that?
Going back over the past decade of the NFL's best rivalry, the Steelers' primary advantage has been at quarterback. Roethlisberger had owned Baltimore, and it appeared he would again last night with that stirring 25-yard bullet to Mike Wallace with 4:59 left for a 20-16 lead. This would raise his personal record to 10-3.
Except that Flacco, the guy at the wrong end of a lot of those, stood tall. Like Big Ben tall.
"I think you love the 50-0 blowouts," Flacco said. "But if you've got to make it tough on yourself, this is probably the most exciting and most fun way to do it."
Ray Lewis, Baltimore's brilliant linebacker, shouted toward Flacco as an NBC camera approached on the field: "What are they gonna say about you now, Flacco? What are they gonna say?"
I could find an awful lot of reasons to complain. The refereeing was ridiculous, especially the non-call for Lewis head-butting Hines Ward out of the game. The Steelers' late delay-of-game penalty was no better, keeping Shaun Suisham from kicking an insurance field goal. And, man, Mike Tomlin and Bruce Arians make easy targets for passing the ball on the penultimate possession, when the Steelers had the lead. A four-point lead with the Steelers holding the ball used to be a slam dunk.
But this still came down to 92 yards and less than three minutes. And that finger points squarely at the secondary. The pass rush was plenty good enough on that final drive, and it only would have taken reasonable coverage to stall the drive. But Gay came crashing back down after four games, Ike Taylor was tormented all night by Anquan Boldin's slant routes, Keenan Lewis' inexperience was exposed, and the safeties weren't there, either, at the end.
On the final play, Smith was supposed to run a quick out in which he would make a catch and get out of bounds. But he recognized Gay had press coverage and "I was able to run past him," Smith said. Gay grabbed him enough to draw a flag, and Clark was late and ran a bad angle in getting over for support.
Clark praised the Ravens, saying, "We can't sit here and say it was all us because they executed."
Gay did the same: "They made the play, and we didn't."
We'll see what means. For now, the Ravens have swept a season series for the first time in five years, and the road to the AFC title is at the other end of I-70.