Was Sunday a ‘Dilfer-like’ epiphany for Flacco?

October 05, 2010 | Luke Jones

You just knew it was coming.

On a rainy, dreary start to the work week in Baltimore, fans bask in the afterglow of one of the finest regular season wins in franchise history. The Ravens went to Pittsburgh and did exactly what they had been unable to do since 2006.

Ben Roethlisberger or not — and Steelers fans are doing everything they can to remind you the Super Bowl-winning quarterback was missing from yesterday’s game — critics can no longer question whether Joe Flacco can win at Heinz Field. The third-year quarterback finally orchestrated a game-winning, comeback drive in the final seconds, even if a major assist went to the Baltimore defense for setting him up on a short field.

And with Sunday’s win vaulting the Ravens into the national eye as the slight front runner among legitimate Super Bowl contenders at the quarter pole, I began thinking about Trent Dilfer.

Yes, he is still the most revered quarterback in franchise history with the Ravens sporting a laundry list of failures and journeymen at the quarterback position over their 15-year history.

With Sunday’s enormous victory, someone had to bring up the Super Bowl XXXV winners and the quarterback who led — or managed — them to victory. It happens every time the Ravens win a big game and find themselves looking like legitimate title contenders.

In reality, my recollection of Dilfer as I watched Flacco throw the game-winning, 18-yard touchdown pass to T.J. Houshmandzadeh with 32 seconds remaining had nothing to do with the two quarterbacks as performers. Flacco is already more accomplished statistically than Dilfer ever was and will be asked to do far more than the former Tampa Bay quarterback did in the 2000 season. Dilfer has the Super Bowl ring that Flacco lacks, but there is no debate that Flacco is the better quarterback, even if only starting his third NFL season.

However, watching Flacco exorcise some early-career demons in the fourth quarter Sunday reminded me of Dilfer’s biggest regular season victory that set the tone for the remainder of the season. It came against the Tennessee Titans — then the Ravens’ biggest rival — at Adelphia Coliseum on Nov. 12, 2000.

Still getting his feet wet in the Baltimore offense after replacing Tony Banks several weeks before, the biggest knock on Dilfer had been his inevitable habit of making a disastrous mistake to cost his team the game. It happened over and over again during his time with the Buccaneers, a major reason he was jettisoned after six seasons.

With the game tied 17-17 and the Ravens driving for the game-winning score, Dilfer inexplicably threw an interception to Titans safety Perry Phenix who returned it 87 yards for a touchdown and a 23-17 Tennessee lead with 2:30 remaining. Anyone following Dilfer’s career could only throw up his hands and say, “Here we go again.”

The exact words uttered by many as Flacco threw incomplete to Anquan Boldin on fourth down from the Pittsburgh 2 with 2:40 remaining.

Another failure in a big spot.

Or so it seemed, as we would find out just a few minutes later.

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After his gaffe, Dilfer dusted himself off and marched the Ravens down the field, culminating with a 2-yard touchdown pass to Patrick Johnson with 25 seconds remaining. It not only gave the Ravens a 24-23 victory over the defending AFC champions, but the win showed Baltimore could go into Nashville and beat the Titans, something no one had accomplished since the stadium opened the previous season.

The rest was history as the Ravens did not lose again that season, which included another trip to Adelphia Coliseum where they beat the Titans again in the divisional round on their way to a Super Bowl victory.

Only time will tell whether Sunday’s win at Heinz Field was an epiphany for Flacco and the Ravens or more an aberration with Roethlisberger out of the lineup for Pittsburgh. As important as the win appears in the big picture, it currently represents a single victory and an early lead in the competitive AFC North heading into Week 5.

“It was very exciting,” said Flacco Monday afternoon. “It was one of the greatest wins we’ve had since I’ve been here. It was a great win, but honestly, we’ve already moved on [to the next game].”

His intended message is clear, but we know better. The jubilation expressed by the normally stoic Flacco in the final seconds Sunday signified a proverbial monkey being lifted from his back. It was only one step — his struggles against Cincinnati and Indianapolis will continue to give his critics ammunition — but it sure felt like a big one in the young quarterback’s career.

In Dilfer’s case, the psychological lift provided by the Week 11 win in Nashville gave him the confidence to lead the offense exactly where it needed to go down the stretch, albeit with a far more conservative approach than the Ravens’ current offensive attack.

If Flacco goes on to reach new heights in his NFL career, we will look back at Sunday’s victory as a keystone moment where the young quarterback grew up even more than he did over five playoff games in his first two seasons.

He now has a last-minute comeback victory in Pittsburgh to draw from his psyche when placed in similar positions in the future. How he will fare is anyone’s guess, but you have to like his chances far more today than you did when he walked to the Baltimore sideline with 2:40 remaining in the fourth quarter as a frenzied crowd prematurely thought the Steelers had done it again to Flacco and the Ravens.

Perhaps they will find themselves back at Heinz Field in January, much like the 2000 team traveled to Tennessee again later that season. If they do, winning again will be a daunting task, but far more feasible than it appeared before Sunday.

When you do something once, you can always do it again.

Just ask Dilfer.

It will be fun to see where Flacco goes from this point forward.

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