PITTSBURGH -- Quarterbacks have moments that define their careers.
It's the time when, in a pressure-packed circumstance, they lead the drive or make the throw that results in victory.
If it happens in a playoff game or the Super Bowl, the moment can grow to epic proportions.
If it happens in the fourth game of the regular season, against a fierce divisional rival, it still carries a good deal of weight, even on a smaller scale.
That was the sort of moment Joe Flacco had in the Baltimore Ravens' 17-14 triumph over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday. He led a winning, 40-yard drive in the final 1:08 against a great defense. And he capped it off with an 18-yard touchdown pass to T.J. Houshmandzadeh with 32 seconds left.
As Flacco put it, "There's not too many better ways to win a game when you're coming to Pittsburgh."
Two seasons and four games into his NFL career, Flacco had done something that allowed him to make a significant jump in stature on his own team and throughout the league.
"That's what the great quarterbacks do," 13-year veteran center Matt Birk said. "When the game's on the line, they step up, they make plays, they win games."
It isn't that Birk or the rest of the Ravens had any reason to doubt that the right man was under center. But in watching Flacco perform the way he did in a hostile environment and against a vaunted defense that routinely makes life miserable for opposing quarterbacks and had brought its share of misery to Flacco in previous encounters, they received further validation of their place among the AFC's best.
Michael Oher, the Ravens' second-year offensive tackle, won't soon forget the command Flacco displayed when he entered the huddle at the start of the decisive drive. "He said, 'Let's go win the game; it's up to us,'" Oher said. "And he won the game for us."
Even members of the Steelers' defense managed to bring themselves to praise Flacco. Given the bitterness of this rivalry, that is no easy task.
"He's a good quarterback," Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark said. "He's played in a lot of situations and done an awesome job. 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."
Granted, the outcome might very well have been different if Ben Roethlisberger, who was serving the final game of his suspension, was the Steelers' quarterback instead of Charlie Batch. Or if Jeff Reed hadn't missed field goals from 49 and 45 yards.
Nevertheless, those factors don't detract from what Flacco accomplished. He threw for 256 yards and a touchdown, with one interception, and that is a strong day against the Steelers.
After the Ravens produced 20 points through a 1-1 start, there was criticism directed at Flacco about the lack of explosiveness from a passing game expected to flourish with high-powered additions of Anquan Boldin and Houshmandzadeh. Questions were raised about his throwing mechanics, raising the possibility that entering his third season he might be showing signs of regression. Flacco shrugged and proceeded to throw for 262 yards and three touchdowns in a victory against Cleveland.
He didn't need that game or Sunday's performance to restore his confidence because he hadn't lost any in the first place.
"I think (Sunday's game) is going to give him something to draw from, an experience that he's been through," Ravens tight end Todd Heap said. "But the way I've seen Joe from Day 1 until now, he's always had that confidence in himself, he's always had that ability to believe in the worst of circumstances. You can see it in his face in the huddle, you can see how he handles himself. And it was just a matter of going out and getting the job done."
This time, the result was a little bit larger than what appeared on the scoreboard as the game clock expired.
"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. "And this is going to be one that all the Ravens fans out there are going to remember for a long time."
They've got answers
» The New York Jets, because they can still do their ground-and-pound thing as well as they did a year ago, quarterback Mark Sanchez is playing with confidence and efficiency, their defense can overcome the absence of its best player (cornerback Darrelle Revis), and, oh by the way, they get wide receiver Santonio Holmes back from his suspension.
» The Steelers, because even after a heartbreaking loss to Baltimore, they have to feel good about entering their bye at 3-1 and with Roethlisberger returning from his suspension. The backup quarterbacks did a commendable job while receiving tremendous support from the defense and the running game. But Sunday's game, against the presumptive preseason kingpin of the AFC North, was a likely victory for Pittsburgh with Roethlisberger. The Steelers remain the best team in the league.
They've got questions
» The Chicago Bears, because apparently those offensive line concerns that a lot of us spoke so much about during the offseason were well founded. The Bears aren't going to face great pass-rushing teams every week, but offensive coordinator Mike Martz clearly is going to have to rethink the whole seven-step-drop passing game if he intends to have a healthy starting quarterback for the rest of the season.
» The Seattle Seahawks, because the inconsistent play of quarterback Matt Hasselbeck is the leading indicator of the team's overall inconsistency. It isn't anything new that the Seahawks struggle badly on the road, but what makes that trend even more pronounced this year is Hasselbeck's four interceptions to one touchdown pass in losses at Denver and St. Louis. Coach Pete Carroll brought in Charlie Whitehurst to be the eventual starter. When does he pull the plug on Hasselbeck?
» The Indianapolis Colts, because their defense, for reasons that aren't entirely clear, isn't playing well and is the primary reason this popular preseason pick to return to the Super Bowl finds itself at 2-2. The Colts have all of their starters from the 2009 unit that was solid enough to help them win the AFC title. However, something is out of sync and it had better be corrected before the 3-0 Kansas City Chiefs come to town with a running game capable of doing the sort of damage that most of Indianapolis' previous opponents have done.
» Phil Simms, who watches a tremendous amount of college football on television and videotape, thinks it is way too soon for anyone to get excited about the NFL prospects of this year's much-hyped crop of marquee quarterbacks. Here's an early assessment from the former New York Giants quarterback and current CBS analyst.
"I say it's going to be OK," Simms said. "Somebody said to me, 'Hey, this could be like the '83 draft class (which included Hall-of-Famers John Elway, Dan Marino, and Jim Kelly).' I go, 'What are you, crazy? What are you looking at?' They just throw out every name.
"I think there's one real, sure-fire first rounder, (Arkansas junior) Ryan Mallett, because there's no denying his size (6-foot-6, 238 pounds) and the fact that he has a really good arm and he plays tall. The rest of them, I'm not sure. Is Andrew Luck (Stanford) going to come out? My first thought is he's probably not ready. Jake Locker, from Washington, is an unbelievable athlete. He's got a lot of things going for him, but it always comes down to one thing in the NFL: You've got to be able to throw it."
» I had the, uh, pleasure of covering the Buffalo Bills through their 2-14 seasons in 1984 and 1985. I know what a team with no legitimate NFL quarterback, with a horrible defense, with no real difference-makers anywhere, and with little chance of beating most -- if not all -- of the opponents on its schedule looks like. That is what you have in the 2010 Bills. In '85, before Bill Polian was promoted from a minor role in the franchise's player-personnel department to general manager, he gave me the following assessment after a thorough review of the roster: "We're 2-14 on merit." The Bills are 0-4 on merit, too, and I'm beginning to wonder if my 2-14 prediction was too optimistic.
» One week, Sebastian Janikowski and Garrett Hartley drive some NFL observers to go as far as to suggest football should do away with kickers because their failures in the clutch make all of the hard work of the "real" players go for naught. The next, Josh Scobee and Matt Bryant do their part to win back some love for the position that so many in this game love to hate.
» The San Diego Chargers lost seven fumbles last season, tying them with the Bears for second-fewest in the league. The Chargers already have lost six in four games, while the Bears have given away four.
» Maybe Terrell Owens had a classic eat-your-words-performance by catching 10 passes for 222 yards and a touchdown after Cleveland Browns rookie safety T.J. Ward, addressing the challenge of facing the Cincinnati Bengals dynamic duo of Owens and Chad Ochocinco, talked about never putting "anyone's skills above" his own and feeling he can "play with the best." But Cleveland's 23-20 victory certainly did nothing to diminish Ward's swagger.
» A recommendation for your football reading list: "Da Bears! How the 1985 Monsters of the Midway Became the Greatest Team in NFL History." With a roster and coaching staff loaded with colorful characters that generated endless controversies, author Steve Delsohn had a wealth of resources to relive the wild ride that brought the Bears' lone Super Bowl championship. The great cooperation he received from Mike Ditka, Jim McMahon, Dan Hampton, and other key members of that team shines through in a documentary-style format that allows their voices to tell their collective story, with Delsohn sprinkling in his perspective along the way. Although the animosity between Ditka and his defensive coordinator, Buddy Ryan, was well known at the time, the depth of their discord, as the book reveals, was astonishing. There's one scene where Ditka opens the door to a defensive meeting, and Ryan fires an eraser at Ditka while ordering him to get out. "Iron Mike" does.
I don't know that Delsohn makes a convincing case for the '85 Bears to be considered the "greatest team in NFL history," but he does provide an interesting and entertaining read, even if you aren't a Bears fan.
Four intriguing matchups for Week 5
Kansas City at Indianapolis: The Chiefs have turned heads all over the league for their surprising start and, now, for being the last unbeaten. The road is about to become much more difficult, beginning with a visit to Lucas Oil Stadium to face an angry Colts team out to prove they haven't really lost their Super Bowl-contending mojo. A week later, the Chiefs are at Houston.
Green Bay at Washington: What exactly do we make of a Packers team that lost to the Bears and then struggled against a winless Detroit Lions club missing its starting quarterback? The Redskins should help provide us with at least a little sense of perspective on whether the Packers truly belong among the best in the NFC, as their 3-1 record would suggest.
Tennessee at Dallas: Jerry Jones wants his Cowboys to play with the desperation of a team coming out of its bye 0-3, rather than 1-2. Even after their impressive victory at Houston, it's hard to imagine the Cowboys needing to pretend that they're in a desperate state after seeing the Redskins knock off the Eagles (who are a different team with a healthy Michael Vick) and the Giants knock Jay Cutler and Todd Collins silly.
» Follow me on Twitter @viccarucci