PITTSBURGH — Joe Flacco delivered a convincing pump fake outside, freezing a defense unsure of his intentions.
And the Baltimore Ravens’ quarterback spun the football off his fingertips in the other direction as he followed through artfully with a textbook strike to hit wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh in stride in the back of the end zone for the game-winning 18-yard touchdown.
With 32 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter of the Ravens’ dramatic 17-14 comeback victory Sunday at Heinz Field, Flacco conquered the previously undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers on the road for the first time in his NFL career after going winless in his previous three games here.
"There’s not too many better ways to win a game, especially when you’re coming to Pittsburgh," Flacco said. "You blow somebody out and that’s fun and all, but when the game is that close and you go and win it on the last drive, there’s no other better way to a game. It was awesome. I couldn’t be more proud of our guys."
The win ties the Ravens (3-1) with Pittsburgh (3-1) atop the AFC North and blocked the Steelers from nearly building a commanding two-game lead in the division with star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger coming off a four-game suspension today.
This represents the signature drive of Flacco’s young career. For Flacco, it was a perfect half-minute as he connected on all four of his passes for 40 yards.
"I think there are going to be a lot of defining moments for Joe, but this is going to be one of them," coach John Harbaugh said. "This is going to be one that all the Ravens fans out there are going to remember for a long time."
Trailing by three points after a botched drive where Flacco misfired on a pass intended for wide receiver Anquan Boldin, the defense had set the table for Flacco’s heroics with a three-and-out as he got the ball back at the Steelers’ 40-yard line with 1:08 remaining in regulation.
Flacco wound up connecting on all four of his passes for 40 yards. He hustled the Ravens down the field in four plays with no timeouts left.
Flacco calmly shredded the Steelers’ aggressive defense, standing firmly in the pocket and locating his targets.
"This was a great day for Joe Flacco, now can’t nobody say nothing about him," running back Willis McGahee said. "The monkey’s definitely off his back. He threw the winning touchdown against Pittsburgh. How about that?"
"Joe kept his poise. He came through under pressure. We had faith in him."
Flacco started the drive with a nine-yard completion to Boldin.
Operating out of the no-huddle offense, Flacco found Boldin from three yards on the sideline to stop the clock.
Then, he saw Houshmandzadeh on the opposite sideline for another 10 yards. That set up the decisive score.
"He’s a good quarterback," Steelers safety Ryan Clark said. "We have a lot of respect for that guy right there. He can make all the throws and he showed that at the end of the game. He’s not one of those quarterbacks that’s going to miss, and he didn’t. We left a guy open and he found him for a touchdown."
Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice, who was held to 20 yards on eight carries while dealing with a bruised knee, said that Flacco was his usual composed, low-key personality in the huddle.
"I didn’t hear nothing from Joe, just, ‘Let’s go,’ then a completion," Rice said. "He didn’t talk too much. Joe encourages us. He’s turning into a vocal leader. He’s Joe Cool. I just saw him firing the ball.
"With every completion, we got closer and closer to the end zone. I wanted him to keep his voice. I didn’t want to have to call the plays for him."
Houshmandzadeh, a former Pro Bowl selection whose contribution has been limited and frustrating to him personally since arriving in Baltimore shortly before the season, made it happen by selling his route perfectly with a head fake.
"I didn’t really run out and up," Houshmandzadeh said. "When I’m running and looking at it, I see him right on bite at the move. So, I turn and I was supposed to go up the sideline. But I felt him going outside me, so I crossed his face, simple. ..
"It’s been a rough two games for me, to be honest with you. I would say last week and this week, I hadn’t played as much or didn’t get as many opportunities as I thought I would. I would be lying to you if I said things weren’t going through my head, but you just got to hang in there."
Flacco had lost four of five career games to Pittsburgh, including the AFC title game two years ago, since entering the NFL in 2008 as a first-round draft pick.
"We’ve played good games here, we just haven’t won any," Flacco said "So to finally come out and win one in another tight game like they all have been, it feels really good."
This win represents the Ravens’ second win in 11 games at Heinz Field.
"Oh man, this is a long time coming," McGahee said. "To get a win here, it’s real big for us, for the organization, for our fans."
This was the sixth game-winning drive that Flacco has engineered in his career.
And this one followed a setback late in the fourth quarter when the Ravens were on the verge of scoring to retake the lead after building a 10-7 lead by halftime.
"To come here and steal one in their backyard is huge," linebacker Jarret Johnson said.
After Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall’s seven-yard touchdown capped a 13-play, 93-yard drive that burned 6 minutes and 52 seconds off the clock earlier in the fourth quarter, Flacco led the Ravens down to the Pittsburgh eight-yard line on the ensuing drive.
Despite a first-and-goal situation after completions of 21 yards to Houshmandzadeh and 11, 10 and 11 yards to Boldin, wide receiver Derrick Mason and tight end Todd heap, respectively, the Ravens’ drive sputtered.
Flacco threw incomplete to Boldin followed by Rice’s six-yard run down to the Steelers’ two-yard line.
Flacco tried to hit Mason in the end zone, but it was broken up by cornerback William Gay.
On fourth down, Flacco short armed a fade pass to Boldin in the comer of the end zone for another incompletion.
The defense reacted well, though.
They stuffed Mendenhall for two, three and no yards to force a punt. A Steelers holding penalty moved the football up from midfield to the Steelers’ 40-yard line.
The Ravens benefited from a pair of missed field goals by Steelers kicker Jeff Reed in the second half as he hit the right upright from 49 yards and was wide left from 45 yards.
Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff missed a 46-yarder in the first quarter.
After Cundiff’s miss, Steelers quarterback Charlie Batch found Antwaan Randle El for a 34-yard completion down to the Ravens’ one-yard line behind cornerback Fabian Washington.
Just a couple plays later, Mendenhall scored the first of his two touchdowns from one yard out.
The Ravens answered that score as Flacco hit Mason for a 40-yard completion.
McGahee faked linebacker James Farrior off his feet to dart into the end zone without being touched for a nine-yard score to tie the game in the second quarter.
On the Ravens’ final possession of the first half, Cundiff made a 33-yard field goal to stake the Ravens to a three-point lead at halftime.
Flacco overcame an errant pass meant to go to Mason that was intercepted by cornerback Ike Taylor.
The defense shut down the Steelers after the turnover, which led up to Reed’s 45-yard miss wide left.
All three missed field goals were on the open, blustery end of Heinz Field.
The Ravens were resilient throughout the game.
"The only way to describe it is a team victory," Harbaugh said. "It’s important to us, it’s important for a lot of reasons. It’s mostly special because of who we’re playing. That football team is a tremendous football team and this is a tough place to play and that’s our arch rival, and we found a way to beat them at their place."
The Ravens lost three games to the Steelers in 2008.
The Ravens were fed up with the notion that they couldn’t win in Pittsburgh.
"Everybody thinks Pittsburgh is supposed to win," fullback Le’Ron McClain said. "I still have a sour taste from two years ago. Getting this victory, you don’t understand how happy I am. It’s big for this organization, for this team and for Joe."
Flacco responded with his trademark poise after the turnover, ultimately engineering a historic win for the Ravens heading into next week’s home game against the Denver Broncos.
All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis sealed the game after Houshmandzadeh’s touchdown by intercepting Batch with 28 seconds left.
It was Flacco’s last-minute work that was marveled about afterward in the locker room.