OWINGS MILLS – It was a rare equal partnership between the Baltimore Ravens’ vaunted defense and a traditionally inconsistent offense.
And the sudden emergence of the offense through quarterback Joe Flacco engineering a sweep of the Pittsburgh Steelers with a clutch touchdown pass Sunday night to rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith has created an enviable position for the Ravens.
Midway through the season, the Ravens (6-2) are tied for first-place in the AFC North with the Cincinnati Bengals (6-2) after knocking the defending AFC champion Steelers (5-3) into third place in the division.
Ranked 16th in total offense, the Ravens managed to pull out a 23-20 victory at Heinz Field behind Flacco marching the offense 92 yards in the final minutes.
“I think we’ll get the respect from our defense now,” running back Ray Rice said. “They’ve been carrying us. We’re happy to do things like this. It builds team camaraderie.”
“This is huge,” All-Pro defensive tackle Haloti Ngata said. “To get this win and see what the offense did, it’s just awesome.”
And that 26-yard scoring lob from Flacco to Smith gave the Ravens the win after Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had erased the Ravens’ 10-point lead in the second half behind a 14-point run without an answer.
What was the defense thinking before Flacco connected with Smith after a series of drops by the second-round draft pick from the University of Maryland?
“Either we’re going to be the same team from last year or we’re going to show how we have grown up from last year," said Suggs when asked what he was thinking before the game-winning play. "We did just that.”
“I’m proud of those guys,” free safety Ed Reed said. “That was huge what Joe and the guys did. We know they’re good.”
By doing so, the Ravens now own the top tiebreaker over the Steelers with the head-to-head edge should the teams finish with identical records as they did last season. Last year, the Steelers claimed the division by virtue of their superior conference record.
Now, the Steelers are officially in the Ravens’ rear view mirror for the time being after Baltimore swept them for the first time in five seasons.
“We can put the Steelers behind us now,” wide receiver Anquan Boldin said. “Nobody gave us a chance. Everybody thought the first game was a fluke. So, we had to come in here and prove everybody wrong once again and prove that we were the better team. We want to continue to get better and win the AFC North”
That’s a strong possibility for the Ravens provided they take care of business going forward, starting this week on the road against the reeling Seattle Seahawks and in their two remaining games against the Bengals.
“I haven’t thought about the psychological implications of it, but it might be a plus," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Monday. “The mathematical implications are definitely there, but it doesn’t mean much if you don’t win your next game, and your next game and your next game.”
Last January, the Ravens were expelled from the postseason by the Steelers for the second time in the past three seasons in Pittsburgh.
The road to a deep run into the playoffs is usually less arduous through home-field advantage.
“I’m really excited about this win,” Flacco said. “What this really means to me is that we are 6-2, we beat Pittsburgh two times and we put ourselves in good position to win the division.”
The Seahawks are a struggling 2-6 outfit, but the Ravens have proven in a loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars and a narrow win over the Arizona Cardinals that there’s a tendency to play down to the level of their competition.
“At the end, it’s how many wins you have compared to how many wins somebody else has, and then the tiebreakers come in at that point,” said Harbaugh, who was in such a good mood after beating Pittsburgh that he quoted Teddy Roosevelt nearly perfectly during his Monday press conference. “You just have to keep stacking wins.”
Although the offense has won big games before, including Flacco hitting T.J. Houshmandzadeh with a touchdown pass in Pittsburgh last year, this was a case of Flacco topping Roethlisberger to pull out a game in the final minute.
“To me, it goes back to: ‘We win as a team, we lose as a team, we do everything together as a team,’” Harbaugh said. “Our guys believe that and buy it. I think every player on each side of the ball wants to do their part and really wants to uphold their end of it. For the offense to be able to do that this game in that way is very valuable, and it means a lot to them. I think it means a lot to all of the guys.”
Although the Ravens faltered in losses to the Tennessee Titans and Jaguars, they’ve also manufactured an impressive pair of wins over the Steelers and have also beaten two other viable contenders: the New York Jets and the Houston Texans.
“We’re at the halfway point, and we put ourselves in a good position” outside linebacker Jarret Johnson said. “We got a tough west coast trip, and if we don’t go out and play well next week we’re just going to put ourselves back in a hole.”
Still defensive-oriented with the second-ranked defense in the league headlined by All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis, Reed, Suggs and Ngata, the Ravens are aiming toward a fourth consecutive trip to the playoffs.
“The record could be better, it could be worse in the end,” Harbaugh said. “We’ve won some big games against some good teams, especially some AFC teams. And we’ve let some slip away that we shouldn’t have.
“What you just try to do is continue to improve, because the next challenge is going to be the toughest challenge. That’s just the way it is. So, I think you look at it from that perspective.”