PRESTON: Flacco, last star left standing for Ravens, comes up big
Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco is the last man standing.
All of the other high-profile players who were here when he was a rookie eight years ago have moved on. Ray Lewis, Derrick Mason and Ed Reed have retired, and Terrell Suggs hasn't played since the first game of this season with a torn Achilles tendon.
And then came Sunday.
Star wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. tore his right Achilles late in the third quarter and is out for the final eight games. So Flacco had no other choice but to carry this team Sunday and he did in the Ravens' 29-26 win over the San Diego Chargers.
"Joe Flacco made plays under duress," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "He always plays that way, but he stepped up today and made some plays that were phenomenal football plays that great players make."
Superb at end: That hasn't been the case this season. Flacco couldn't engineer come-from-behind wins against Denver, Oakland or Arizona, with all three of those games virtually ending with him throwing a last-second interception.
But without Smith, Flacco was superb on the Ravens' last drive despite having a cast of no-name receivers, a struggling left tackle and a new center who was having problems snapping the ball.
Flacco started the game-winning nine-play, 59-yard drive with 2:27 left in the game, which featured three memorable passes and some great hands that handled center John Urschel's errant snaps.
One pass was an 18-yard back-shoulder throw to receiver Chris Givens down the left sideline. Another was a hard bullet across the middle over the head of cornerback Steve Williams and into the hands of receiver Kamar Aiken for 13 yards on a slant.
The other pass, of 21 yards, was incomplete down the right sideline to Aiken, but Williams was called for pass interference. It helped set up Justin Tucker's 39-yard game-winning field goal three plays later.
"Either I was going to make the play or there was going to be interference," Aiken said. "He grabbed me right from the start and Joe read the coverage and placed the ball perfectly. He had a strong performance down the stretch."
A team in need of leadership: It was satisfying to see Flacco play this way because this team has been void of leadership all season. Without Suggs, Smith was the only vocal leader on the team. When he left the game, then center Jeremy Zuttah suffered what a source close to Zuttah described as a shoulder sprain later in the period, Flacco took notice.
"I have thought about that before," Flacco said. "When I got here in 2008, guys like myself, Marshal Yanda, Sam Koch and even Terrell Suggs were some of the new guys. Then Siz goes down and without Steve, even all the big-name players who have come in recently are hurt. It's just me, Yanda and Sam Koch who are left."
Losing a player of Smith's magnitude might affect some teams in a negative sense, but not the Ravens. They lack talent at cornerback and wide receiver, but this team doesn't quit. They never have and never will. It's not in their makeup.
Flacco was certainly bothered by Smith's injury.
"As a player, it's tough to get caught up in that in the moment," Flacco said. "It's going to be an emotional thing just to lose players like that at any point. I'm not afraid to say when you have a guy like that, what he means to this team, this organization."
Keeping Urschel calm: The best way to show your appreciation is to play well, and try to replace his leadership, which is exactly what Flacco did. When Urschel was struggling with the snaps, Flacco kept him calm.
It's unbelievable that a backup center doesn't get repetitions during the week, especially in the NFL.
"My snaps weren't very good," Urschel said. "He [Joe] played really well, he took care of me. I'm very thankful for that."
For one of the few times this season, the Ravens actually had a decent passing game. The running game was pretty much nonexistent until the fourth quarter, but Flacco started tossing the ball around to Aiken (six catches for 62 yards), Givens (three for 57) and Jeremy Ross (three for 21). Like Arizona the week before, San Diego tried to harass Flacco with pressure.
Only this time, Flacco and his receivers took advantage of the one-on-one coverage outside.
"Those guys don't blink. They don't blink," Flacco said. "They're calling for it the whole game and they want the opportunity to go in there and get the job done. You've got to be proud of the way they go up there. They're not afraid. They want the ball and they want it to be on them. That's all you can ask for."
Getting it done: In Sunday's game, the Ravens couldn't ask for anything more from Flacco. In the first half, the Ravens had just 15 rushing yards, but Flacco connected on 14 of 19 passes for 161 yards. He was the Ravens' offense. Their best play in the first two quarters was Flacco scrambling, evading tacklers and then tossing up jump balls to his receivers.
But the Ravens improved in the second half. Flacco ended the game with 319 passing yards, completing 25 of 37 passes for one touchdown.
It would be way too premature to say these receivers have reached the turning point. Both San Diego and the Ravens showed exactly why they are two of the worst teams in the NFL.
But after several failures this year, the Ravens got it done and pulled off a last-second win for the second time. In those other games, including the losses, Smith was a factor, but not at the end of this one.
The only big-name skilled-position player left on the roster was Flacco, and he carried the team.