PITTSBURGH -- So, show of hands, how many expected Joe Flacco to do that?
"No one outside this locker room," Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice said. "No one."
Flacco, the Ravens quarterback who takes as many hits on the field as from critics off of it, marched the Ravens 92 yards down the field and delivered the 26-yard winning pass to Torrey Smith with 8 seconds left in the game for a 23-20 win over the AFC North rival Pittsburgh Steelers.
It was equally improbable and incredible. He had to go the length of the field against the NFL's top-ranked pass defense. He had 2 minutes, 24 seconds to reach the end zone against a defense that held Tom Brady to a season-low 198 yards passing a week ago.
What does this say about Flacco? He's still not an elite quarterback. He's not even a consistent one. But the Ravens -- as well as the football world -- now know Flacco can take over that moment of the game when he's needed the most. With the defense that Baltimore has, that might be enough for the Ravens to get past that Pittsburgh roadblock and return to the Super Bowl.
The Ravens (6-2) are now tied with the Bengals (6-2) for the best record in the AFC and first place in the AFC North. They completed their first sweep of the Steelers since 2006. The way Flacco and the Ravens beat the Steelers wasn't just a statement. It was their grand declaration.
"This Steelers-Ravens game is for men, big men," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said defiantly. "You got to shine bright if you want to win this game. Nobody shined brighter than Joe Flacco in this game."
A different story was being written about Flacco before the eighth game-winning drive in the fourth quarter of his career. On his first drive of the fourth quarter, Flacco fumbled after getting hit by James Harrison. Ben Roethlisberger converted that into a 25-yard go-ahead touchdown in his classic style, rolling to his right and firing the ball downfield on the run.
Once again, it was Roethlisberger over Flacco. Well, not exactly.
After a three-and-out (all three incompletions), Flacco got the ball back at his own 8-yard line. Down by four points (20-16), he knew he needed a touchdown to win the game.
During the television timeout, the Heinz Field scoreboard showed Flacco's statistics (208 yards at the time) next to Roethlisberger's stellar numbers (310 yards) while the lyrics of the Lynyrd Skynyrd song "What's your name, little girl" played loudly.
Still, Joe Cool says he didn't feel under fire.
"You don’t have anything to lose," Flacco said. "You either score or you don’t score."
Flacco calmly completed 7 of 13 passes for 92 yards, converting two third downs as well as a fourth-and-one at a time when he didn't receive much help. On that game-winning drive, Smith let a pass go off his fingertips in the end zone and Anquan Boldin dropped a pass at the 10-yard line.
As somebody who knows what it feels like to have people doubt them, Flacco went back to Smith four plays after that drop for the winning score.
The sellout crowd of 64,851 couldn't believe it. In fact, Flacco didn't initially know it happened. As he jogged downfield after the throw, he saw the flag and thought the Ravens had the ball at the 1-yard line because of pass interference.
"I then saw Torrey coming from the back of end zone with the ball in his hands," Flacco recounted. "I was like, wait a second, did he catch that? I saw a couple of people going nuts, celebrating and running on the field. I was like, he must have caught the ball."
That kind of uncertainty is typical with the Ravens quarterback. When it comes to Flacco, it's hard to gauge which quarterback will show up from game to game, from half to half, or even from drive to drive.
Just take a look at the last two times Flacco was on national television. It was a month ago when Flacco failed to compete a pass in two quarters against the New York Jets. It was two weeks ago when Flacco couldn't produce a first down in the first 40 minutes of the game at Jacksonville.
The Ravens, though, have never publicly wavered in their support of the 2008 first-round pick.
"I don’t get all the stuff everybody talks about with Joe," Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. "Just turn on the TV and look around this league, these are good defenses in the NFL. Even the great ones have their issues. I’ve been fortunate to be around a lot of really good ones. At Joe’s age, he’s a great one. And he’s going to do nothing but get better and better. But we know expectations are high. As we say around here, Joe’s just the man for the job."
Harbaugh drew upon Theodore Roosevelt in defending Flacco.
"It's not the critic who counts," he said. "It's the man who is in the arena whose face is covered with blood, sweat and dust. he will never be with those poor and timid souls who know no victory or defeat. So that's what I say to all the people. They don't count."
This isn't the first time that Flacco has won in Heinz Field. It's not the first time that he's thrown a game-winning pass in the final minute.
On Oct. 3, 2010, Flacco hit T.J. Houshmandzadeh for an 18-yard winning touchdown with 32 seconds remaining. This inspired Flacco to tell his teammates that they did it before when they reached midfield Sunday night.
But this was different. Flacco only had to drive the Ravens 40 yards last year and Roethlisberger wasn't on the field.
What Flacco did Sunday night was what all quarterbacks dream about, right?
"I don’t know. I think you live for the 50-0 blowouts," Flacco said with a grin. "If you got to make it tough on yourself, this is probably the most exciting, and in the end, the most fun way to do it."
Flacco has thrived when the pressure has been the highest. Last Sunday, he rallied the Ravens from 21 points down to beat Arizona, something his teammates pointed out Sunday night.
"Take the second half of the Arizona game and take this game," Rice said, "and Joe Flacco is playing better than any quarterback in the NFL."
So, everyone on the Ravens' sideline believed Flacco was going to lead a comeback win over the Steelers, right?
"I’m like, either one of two things was going to happen: Either we’re the same team from last year or we’re going to show the world how we’ve grown up in a year -- and he did just that," Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "This is the toughest place in the world to win. It says something about our team. It definitely says something about our quarterback."