OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Watching from afar, it would be easy to conclude Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco hasn’t had a good 2013 season.
Already with a career-high 17 interceptions and on pace to post the lowest passer rating (77.0) of his six-year career, Flacco has clearly suffered from working with the league’s worst-ranked rushing attack in yards per carry (3.0) and a supporting cast that’s lacked tight end Dennis Pitta until this past Sunday. But his fourth-quarter performance has been the saving grace in the Ravens finding themselves with a 7-6 record and currently in position to be the AFC’s No. 6 seed in the postseason.
For the second straight season, Flacco’s highest passer rating (91.7) has come in the final 15 minutes of play as he’s thrown eight fourth-quarter touchdowns, twice the number he’s thrown in any other period. He’s completed 66.1 percent of his passes in the final quarter compared to just 57 percent in the first three quarters of play this season.
Unsurprisingly, the Ravens offense has also been its most productive in the final quarter by scoring 102 of its 278 points — just under 37 percent of their total output — in that 15-minute period. This past Sunday, Flacco orchestrated the 18th game-winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime of his career, but he downplayed the significance of his strong performances when the stakes are at their highest on a weekly basis.
“I don’t know. We’ve put ourselves in a lot of situations in the fourth quarter to have to come back on teams and have to play well to win football games,” Flacco said. “We’ve probably spent a lot of time feeling games out, and then all the sudden gotten ourselves into situations where we just have to let it go and see what happens.”
That “let-it-rip” mentality seems to suit Flacco best as we saw throughout last season’s postseason run to the Super Bowl and again on Sunday when he went 7-for-10 for 91 yards and two touchdown passes on the final two offensive drives of the game against Minnesota. Prior to the nine-play, 64-yard drive that culminated with a 1-yard touchdown pass to Pitta with 2:05 remaining in the fourth quarter, Flacco had only gone 21-for-40 for 154 yards, a touchdown, and three interceptions.
His late-game success has also come while needing to trust unproven players this season without the likes of Pitta and former Ravens wideout Anquan Boldin in the picture. Other quarterbacks may have thought twice about going to rookie free agent Marlon Brown with the game — and the season — on the line Sunday, but Flacco went right to the 6-foot-5 University of Georgia product in the back of the end zone for a 9-yard touchdown with four seconds remaining.
“It’s just what you have to do. Marlon is a great player,” Flacco said. “I’m not thinking back there, ‘Who is in this position? Can I trust this guy?’ If I was thinking that – if that was going through my head – I’d have all the confidence in the world, and he’d be a guy that I’d pick out.”
This moxie gives the Ravens and their 29th-ranked offense a fighting chance to do what’s necessary down the stretch in their final three games to give themselves a great chance to keep the final playoff spot in the conference. Often criticized in the past for being unemotional on the sideline, Flacco’s ability to never get too high or low in the biggest moments is what has made him so effective over the years for the Ravens.
The task of facing three first-place teams in the final three weeks — two of them coming on the road — is a daunting one, but Sunday was the latest example of the Ravens seemingly being able to flip a switch and do what’s necessary to win — even if it’s not aesthetically pleasing.
“We’ve had so much experience in tight games and in big, meaningful games,” Flacco said. “When we do get in situations where we have to play well in crunch time, the situation isn’t too big for us. We’re able to relax and just play football as we always would. Whereas if you’re not in those situations a lot and you start to think about the consequences of what happens if you don’t do what you should do, that’s when the situation can get too big and can overwhelm some people.”
Suggs remembers 2005 Detroit fiasco
Only one player remains on the roster from the last time the Ravens traveled to Ford Field to take on the Detroit Lions back in 2005.
It was a forgettable and embarrassing day as Baltimore not only lost 35-17 to fall to 1-3 in what would eventually be a 6-10 season but set a franchise record for penalties — falling one shy of the NFL record — and had two players ejected on that October afternoon. One of those players was linebacker Terrell Suggs, who recollected when he was tossed for arguing a roughing the passer call by referee Mike Carey, who explained that Suggs acted with “malice in his heart.”
The 11th-year linebacker could speak with a sense of humor on Wednesday about what happened eight years earlier, but that doesn’t overshadow it being one of the more embarrassing days in franchise history.
“I remember the  penalties. Did I get thrown out of that game? I did get thrown out of that game,” said Suggs, who insisted that 2005 game won’t be on his mind Monday night. “I had a lot of ‘malice in my heart.’ I think I head-butted a ref. I remember one of our guys (defensive tackle Ma’ake Kemoeatu) hit the crowd with the ‘X-Pac’ [gesture] — you all know what that is. I remember [former Lions running back] Kevin Jones having an altercation — not like a physical one, but a football altercation with one of our safeties. It was an interesting day. But that was the past, and we don’t ever want to see that side of us again.”
Road woes or warriors?
A three-game winning streak at home propelled the Ravens back in position to earn a playoff berth for a sixth consecutive season, but their demise may come with two of their final three games being played away from M&T Bank Stadium.
Though four of their five road losses have come by a combined 15 points — the Ravens lost by 22 at Denver on Sept. 5 — a 1-5 mark on the road doesn’t bode well for late-season trips to Detroit and Cincinnati in the final three weeks of the regular season.
“We’ve won the close games at home, and we haven’t won them on the road,” coach John Harbaugh said. “That’s the bottom line. We’ve done the things we needed to do to win tight games at home, and we haven’t done the things we needed to do on the road. It’s us – it’s what we’ve done – [and] the plays we’ve made or haven’t made that have been the difference.”
Eleven of Flacco’s 17 interceptions have come in away games, but the Baltimore defense has allowed 26.8 points per game on the road — skewed by Denver’s 49-point explosion in Week 1 — compared to just 14.3 points surrendered per home contest.
It’s a trend that must be reversed as the Ravens face two top-10 offenses on the road over the final three games.
“There is no disrespect calling a spade a spade,” said Suggs about the Ravens’ struggles away from home. “But the season isn’t over yet. We still have two on the road, and we need these two. I guess we’ll have an answer for that question come the end of the season.”