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It wouldn't be a loss to the Steelers without a fumble by Joe Flacco.
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco had exorcised a lot of demons since the last time the Ravens lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the regular season -- which was, incidentally, the last time the Ravens lost at M&T Bank Stadium -- back in December of 2010. In that game, the Ravens led in the fourth quarter when Steelers safety Troy Polamalu came flying in from Flacco's blind side and spiked the ball out of the quarterback's hands for a strip sack. The Steelers recovered the fumble and scored a touchdown on the ensuing drive, which is exactly what happened this time around, though it was James Harrison who made the game-turning play. The Ravens led, 20-13, when Harrison beat his man and pounced on Flacco, who seemed oblivious to the fact that Harrison had invaded his pocket from behind. After Ziggy Hood dove on the fumble, it took the Steelers just four plays to tie the score. After three Flacco incompletions, the Steelers got the ball back and drove down the field for the game-winning field goal.
Flacco had performed well against the Steelers in his three previous regular-season games, winning all of them, but this one will go on the list of duds he has had against his longtime nemeses. It wasn't just the fumble -- and yes, I know that he hasn't fumbled in every loss to the Steelers; it just feels that way because of the impact of the ones he has lost. Flacco, whose development has flat-lined late in his fifth NFL season, completed just 16 of his 34 passes against the Steelers for 188 yards. He threw a beautiful touchdown pass to Anquan Boldin, but on the drive before that one, he also tossed perhaps the ugliest interception of his career. After spinning out of a sack, he lofted a fade-away throw high into the air for tight end Dennis Pitta, who got lost in a crowd of black and yellow. Steelers safety Ryan Clark could have called for a fair catch before making the easy interception, Flacco's eighth in 12 games this season. The coaching staff will be criticized -- and rightfully so -- for ignoring running back Ray Rice late in the 23-20 loss, even though he averaged 6.5 yards per carry and the Ravens were not trailing. But Flacco looked like the quarterback the Steelers used to bully a couple of years ago. He has to play better than that.
I haven't been overly critical of Flacco this season -- maybe I should have tweaked him more -- because I feel he has gotten to the point in his career where we don't need to scrutinize what he did every single game. I realize I am the minority there. But Flacco wins games, especially in the regular season, and his track record speaks for himself. I'm more concerned with what he does in the playoffs, and I'm sure the Ravens, who have to give him a new contract at season's end, are in the same boat. But it's that maddening lack of consistency -- not just from game to game, but sometimes from quarter to quarter, as we saw again Sunday -- that leaves him open to his many critics, fair or not, locally and nationally. He did not raise his game when the Ravens needed him to in the loss to the Steelers, and suddenly, the Ravens are no longer locks to win the AFC North. Should they somehow lose control of a second division title, we will remember Flacco's fumble as the moment they first started to let it slip out of their grasp.
December 2, 2012