OWINGS MILLS, Md. — In the shadow of his own end zone and only 2:24 remaining at a raucous Heinz Field, Joe Flacco stood 92 yards away from the biggest regular-season win of his four-year career.
For observers who have followed Flacco and the Ravens closely over his brief NFL career, it might as well have been 92 miles with the multiple hazards of the Pittsburgh defense waiting for him across the line of scrimmage.
We’d seen this story before — several times, in fact — and the ending was all too predictable.
To everyone but Flacco and the Ravens, apparently.
“You don’t have anything to lose,” said Flacco in describing his mindset at the start of the drive. “You either score or you don’t score.”
On every play, Ravens supporters braced themselves for the inevitable James Harrison sack-and-strip that would end the game. They prepared themselves emotionally for the Troy Polamalu interception that would propel Steelers fans into a frenzy and send the Ravens home with another crushing defeat snatched from the jaws of victory.
Instead, Flacco continued to complete passes, moving the Ravens into Pittsburgh territory. Would this be the tease of all Flacco teases, or would the Ravens actually get it done?
Despite critical drops from Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin just moments earlier, Flacco never wavered as he once again threw to Smith for the game-winning 26-yard touchdown with eight seconds remaining to beat the Steelers on their home turf. With apologies to the 40-yard drive he orchestrated in the final seconds last year against these same Steelers — without Ben Roethlisberger — in Pittsburgh, the words still feel foreign a day later.
Channeling Teddy Roosevelt after the game, coach John Harbaugh addressed the many critics who have questioned Flacco and his ability to beat the Steelers when it matters most. He repeated those same words Monday in his Owings Mills press conference.
“It’s not the critic who counts,” Harbaugh said. “It’s not the man who points out where the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. It’s the man who’s actually in the arena.”
Anyone invested in the Ravens in some form or another have tossed their hat into the ring of trying to assess who Flacco is and where he’s going.
In a year highlighted by his inconsistency, the 26-year-old provided the signature moment of his career that both validated his supporters and silenced those questioning his ability — for the time being, anyway. For as exciting as the heroics were in Pittsburgh on Sunday night — allowing the Ravens to complete only their second regular-season sweep of the Steelers — eight games remain before Flacco and the Ravens can really begin to answer the question of how far they can really go after getting past the inconquerable mountain that’s been Pittsburgh for a second time this season.
“It doesn’t mean much if you go out and don’t win your next game and then your next game and your next game,” Harbaugh said. “At the end, it’s how many wins you have compared to how somebody else has and then the tiebreakers come in at that point. You just have to keep stacking wins.”
Sunday’s win promises nothing about Flacco or the Ravens. As they now turn their attention to the Seattle Seahawks, they will be faced with the question of responding emotionally after deflating efforts in Tennessee and Jacksonville that resulted in unexpected losses earlier this season.
Opponents will care little about the accomplishment of getting past the hated Steelers. In order to truly validate themselves in the aftermath of two victories over Pittsburgh, the Ravens must continue to grow.
The 92-yard drive doesn’t transform Flacco into an elite quarterback or suddenly erase the questions about his consistency. But, it does prove the former Delaware signal-caller is capable of winning a football game in the lion’s den under the most difficult of circumstances, to borrow an expression of a former Baltimore coach.
Will those 92 yards catapult Flacco to the next tier of quarterbacks? Will the late scoring drive put the Ravens on the road to Indianapolis in February?
Or was it just one special drive and win that will only madden observers further if the Ravens and Flacco find themselves in similar positions to what we saw in Nashville and Jacksonville?
As Harbaugh likes to say, it’s a week-to-week thing.
But if Sunday did anything, it sure made the potential future for Flacco and the Ravens a lot more interesting.
If he did it once, what’s stopping him from doing it again?