On a day when the nation paused to remember one of its worst days, the Ravens gave their fans a three-hour respite of near perfection. The Ravens’ 35-7 victory over the hated (or at least, intensely disliked) Steelers was perhaps their most important home-opening win since their Super Bowl championship season of 2000.
In that last year of the last millennium, the Ravens could not seem to conquer the Jacksonville Jaguars, suffering loss after excruciating loss. Baltimore’s frustration dated back to the teams’ first meeting in 1996, a Week 11 30-27 loss in Jacksonville when the Ravens blew a 27-16 fourth-quarter lead.
All of that changed in the 2000 home opener. Everyone associated with Ravendom knew that the 2000 edition of the Ravens had plenty of potential (especially after blanking the Steelers in Pittsburgh in Week 1, 16-0), but also that potential never lifted a Lombardi trophy. The Ravens had to prove that they were contenders by defeating the arch nemesis Jags, and they did just that by rallying from a 23-7 deficit to score an exhilarating 39-36 win on Tony Banks’ (remember him?) 29-yard touchdown pass to Shannon Sharpe.
The reasons for the Ravens’ frustrations against Jacksonville in the 1990s paralleled the reasons for their frustrations against the Steelers a decade later – the other team made all, or enough, of the big plays in important situations. Ravens’ fans surely remember the dropped passes in last season’s 31-24 playoff loss in Pittsburgh, which included a dropped touchdown by Anquan Boldin, and a dropped fourth-down conversion on the last drive by T.J. Houshmandzadeh.
Just as in the 2000 home opener, "all of that changed" again. Just as before, this home opener was charged with anticipation, and was played on a steamy, humid day. Even before kickoff, Steelers’ head coach Mike Tomlin was flicking beads of sweat off of his forehead just standing on the sideline. Had he known what was coming, he may have had to use a squeegee.
The Ravens matured into Super Bowl contenders, not just playoff contenders, in six first-half plays.
Big Play Number One was when new left tackle Bryant McKinnie launched himself into Steelers’ linebacker James Farrior to spring Ray Rice for a 36-yard run on the Ravens’ first play from scrimmage.
Big Play Number Two followed just two plays later when Joe Flacco spiraled a perfect pass to the well-covered Anquan Boldin for a 27-yard touchdown pass, and a 7-0 lead. The "window" within which Flacco had to throw the pass was as tight as the fit of his matrimonial ring at his wedding this past summer.
Big Play Number Three came when Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs clubbed Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for Suggs’ first sack of the day (he finished with three), causing Roethlisberger to fumble and lose the ball to the Ravens’ Haloti ("Dolly") Ngata.
Big Play Number Four was the very next play, when Flacco hit tight end Dennis Pitta for a 29-yard gain to the Steelers’ eight yard line. Pitta may be the best Brigham Young tight end for the Ravens since … Brian Billick. (By the way, Billick is about to become a grandfather, and said that his daughter had not yet decided on a name for the newborn. My money says that "Kyle" or "Boller" will not be the eventual choice.)
Three plays later, Rice scored again, and the Ravens were up, 14-0.
After the Steelers scored a touchdown and regained possession of the ball with 8:11 remaining in the first half, one could sense that Steelers’ fans in the stadium were reaching in their pockets for their Terrible Towels. But those rags stayed pocketed when Ravens’ cornerback Cary Williams stuck Steelers’ receiver Antonio Brown for a one-yard loss on second-and-ten (Big Play Number Five), and the Steelers couldn’t convert on third-and-long.
Having regained control, the Ravens scored on their next possession to take a comfortable 21-7 lead. That drive featured Big Play Number Six, a third-and-six Flacco pass to Rice for 25 yards to the Steelers’ 15 yard line.
Six big plays in one half, including four by an offense that could only muster 126 total yards against the Steelers in last season’s playoff loss.
Make no mistake, this was a step toward postseason success for the Ravens. No, I’m not predicting a Super Bowl win, or even an appearance, but the odds for those results have jumped higher than a Warren Buffet stock pick in the last 24 hours.
Flacco appeared to have matured the most yesterday. True, he was already the only NFL quarterback to win four road playoff games. But he never displayed the pocket coolness and poise to throw downfield against the Steelers like he did yesterday.
In his short career, Flacco has drawn raves (no pun, intended – OK, maybe) for not changing expression during the ups and downs of play on the field. Some even used Flacco’s unflappable demeanor to compare him (cough, gasp) to one John Constantine Unitas.
The difference between Unitas and Flacco has been that, while neither quarterback displayed much emotion, Unitas made the plays to beat the best teams in the NFL. Flacco has made such plays in the first round or two of the bloated NFL playoffs, but he has looked like a child against the best in the Ravens’ last three playoff losses: averaging a puny four yards per pass attempt against the Steelers last January; only five yards per pass attempt and two interceptions the previous season at Indianapolis; and four yards per pass attempt and three interceptions at Pittsburgh in 2009.
That changed yesterday. Flacco executed difficult passes downfield, and stood in the pocket seemingly unperturbed by the same onrushing Steelers who caused him to make jittery short passes in the past.
When these two teams meet again, the person playing the most important position on the field for the Ravens will no longer be an NFL youngster; he’ll be a mature NFL quarterback.