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Old 12-05-2010, 08:34 AM   #1
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Default Starkey: Flacco, Big Ben the keys

Starkey: Flacco, Big Ben the keys
By Joe Starkey
Sunday, December 5, 2010

It's not news that Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is a gifted orator. The man can turn hello into a memorable quote. And as with all great speakers, he saves his best work for the biggest moments.

Like any game against the Baltimore Ravens.

Leading off the week of the AFC title match two years ago, for example, Tomlin cleared the fences:

"Us and the Ravens it'd be a big game if it was a scrimmage," he said. "It just happens to be the AFC Championship."

Earlier this week, Tomlin framed the latest installment of the NFL's fiercest rivalry, one that will play out tonight at M&T Bank Stadium with a pair of 8-3 teams tied atop the AFC North.

"The secret in this thing," Tomlin said, "is that there are no secrets."

He could have stopped there. He didn't ... "(If) you want to be a dominant team, you want to be a good team, you want to make a splash, you have to take your show on the road in hostile environments against known opponents and make the significant plays that are necessary to win."

That could be translated several ways and perhaps should be, into several languages but I see only one essential meaning: The better quarterback wins.

More to the point, the quarterback who makes plays or fails to do so down the stretch will decide the game. That has been the way of it when these teams collide.

Two years ago, in a de facto division title game at Baltimore, Ben Roethlisberger improbably marched the Steelers 92 yards in 13 plays for the game's only touchdown, a 4-yard pass to Santonio Holmes with 43 seconds left.

In the conference championship a month later, the other quarterback had the ball in his hands with a chance to win.

Joe Flacco was a rookie then, drawing frequent comparisons to Big Ben because of his large frame (6-foot-6, 235), his ability to keep plays alive and his early success in a league where first-year quarterbacks traditionally carried clipboards, not 80-plus passer ratings.

Flacco, however, was not ready to duplicate Roethlisberger's heroics. Needing only a field goal to win, the Ravens moved from their 12 to their 32 with more than four minutes left when Flacco unleashed a pass that will live forever in Steelers' lore. Safety Troy Polamalu snatched it and weaved his way 40 yards for a game-clinching score.

Since then, Flacco has twice beaten the Steelers with clutch play. On Oct. 3 at Heinz Field, he might have taken his largest stride.

After struggling most of the day, Flacco turned into Smokin' Joe. He got a final chance at the Steelers' 40 with 55 seconds left and no timeouts and did what Roethlisberger has so often done turn an otherwise pedestrian performance into a golden memory by virtue of some late magic.

Flacco went 4 for 4 on that final drive, capping it with an 18-yard bullet to T.J. Houshmandzadeh on a play where the Steelers blitzed two of the most explosive athletes in the league Polamalu and Lawrence Timmons to the quarterback's left.

"We respect Flacco a lot," Steelers linebacker James Farrior says. "And we know he can make all the throws."

The Steelers, of course, were without Roethlisberger on Oct. 3. As he limps into the rematch with a foot injury, two numbers reflect his value in the rivalry: The Steelers are 5-0 against the Ravens in Roethlisberger's past five starts, 0-3 when he's out.

By this point, nobody should need evidence of the NFL being a quarterbacks' league, but just in case, these two franchises provide living proof.

From the Steelers' side, their quarter-century Super Bowl drought happened to mark their time between great quarterbacks Terry Bradshaw and Roethlisberger. That was not a coincidence.

The Ravens, meanwhile, have squandered more great defenses in a decade's time than perhaps any team in NFL history, mostly on account of an underachieving passing game. In Baltimore's five playoff losses since winning it all in 2000, they have produced a grand total of three offensive touchdowns, one by air. To the tight end.

Last year, the Ravens managed a field goal in a playoff loss at Indianapolis. Flacco's two-game playoff passer rating was 39.3.

This year, on this night, the Ravens need the Flacco they saw at Heinz Field, the Flacco who is having his best season. They need a championship quarterback.

The Steelers need Roethlisberger to pay further dividends on that $102 million contract. He must make quick decisions and throw in rhythm, the way he did against Oakland two weeks ago. If that injured wheel prohibits drop backs, coordinator Bruce Arians must opt for the no-huddle attack. All shotgun.

One could conjure multiple scenarios. The likelihood is a tight defensive battle that boils down to a few significant plays at the end. And it's no secret which position will provide them.

Or fail to do so.

Joe Starkey can be reached at jraystarkey@gmail.com or .
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