- Jamison Hensley, ESPN Staff Writer
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Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has played poorly on the road. Really poorly. His numbers away from home over the past two seasons are among the worst in the league.
That is, except when he plays at Heinz Field. When he plays against one of the NFL's toughest defenses and in one of the toughest stadiums, Flacco has delivered last-minute winning touchdowns the past two years. Why has Flacco played like Joe Montana in Pittsburgh and like Joey Harrington elsewhere?
Flacco doesn't have a secret for his success there, or at least he's not telling heading into Sunday night's showdown between the Ravens and Steelers at Heinz Field.
"I think this is one of those places, as a team and an offensive unit, we enjoy going in there and playing," Flacco said. "We realize it's going to be a tough game. The games there have turned out to allow us to go out there and get it or not do it. The fact that we have made the plays when it counted gives us that ability to go in there every year and say we've done it before and we know we can do it again."
Still, why is Pittsburgh different from every other NFL city? It's more of a mystery than just pure coincidence.
Maybe it goes back to his days at the University of Pittsburgh, where he didn't get a shot at starting over Tyler Palko. For two seasons (2003 and 2004), he spent Saturdays standing on the sideline of Heinz Field, which also serves as the home stadium for the college team.
Maybe it's Flacco's familiarity with the Steelers (he's played more times against Pittsburgh than any other team because of two playoff games). Maybe it's Flacco stepping up in a heated divisional rivalry and playing down to the competition the rest of the time.
There just has to be a reason why Flacco's two statement games in the regular season have come at Heinz Field. He's had four fourth-quarter comebacks on the road in his career and two of them have been in Pittsburgh.
In his past two regular-season games at Heinz, he's faced similar challenges: trailing by four points late in the fourth quarter. In 2010, Flacco was down 14-10 with 68 seconds remaining and no timeouts. He finished off a 40-yard drive with an 18-yard pass to T.J. Houshmandzadeh with 32 seconds left.
In 2011, Flacco started a drive at his own 8-yard line, behind 20-16 with 2:24 left. He marched down the field against the NFL's top-ranked defense and hit Torrey Smith for a 26-yard touchdown with eight seconds remaining.
"When you look at his numbers, his record doesn't lie," Steelers linebacker Larry Foote said. "He's a proven winner. He's winning playoffs games. He's beat us in Heinz Field in the fourth quarter. He's definitely earned his respect. It's going to be a big challenge for us to stop him."
Flacco's success is more pronounced because few visiting quarterbacks have had it in Pittsburgh. Only 17 visiting quarterbacks who have won at the 12-year-old Heinz Field, and Flacco is one of four quarterbacks to win there multiple times (Carson Palmer, Steve McNair and Tom Brady are the others).
But no quarterback has done as well as Flacco at Heinz recently. Pittsburgh has lost four times in its last 22 home games and half of those defeats have come as a result of Flacco's late-game heroics.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is more worried about what Flacco has done this season than what he's accomplished in the past.
"They are continuing to grow on offense and mature with their quarterback. The offense runs through Joe Flacco," Tomlin said. "They do a lot of no-huddle. They have a lot of autonomy for him, and rightfully so. He’s a great decision maker."
Flacco has been two different quarterbacks this year: the spectacular one at home and the struggling one on the road. At M&T Bank Stadium, he has averaged 322.4 yards passing with 10 touchdowns and three interceptions. On the road, he has averaged 179.7 yards with three touchdowns and four interceptions.
For his career, Flacco is 32-5 at home and 19-17 on the road.
"It's interesting that we aren't quite as good on the road," Flacco said. "I like playing on the road. It's cool to go into other stadiums, see how their fans are and silence them when you play really well."
His numbers in his past two wins at Pittsburgh haven't been jaw-dropping ones. He's totaled 556 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. The difference is that both touchdowns were game-winners.
The hostile surroundings will be familiar for Flacco. The Steelers have the NFL's third-longest home winning streak. They have the NFL's top-ranked pass defense, giving up a total of 556 passing yards to Andy Dalton, Robert Griffin III, Eli Manning and Matt Cassel.
But, if the Ravens are trailing late in the fourth quarter, Flacco will feel quite at home with the ball in his hands.
"Believe me, I don't think we all want to have that (situation) happen. We want to go out and win a game like we did Sunday," said Flacco, referring to the 35-point blowout of the Raiders. "But if that's how it has to be done -- which is likely against these guys because they're a good team -- then yeah, we're ready to do it."
5hEric D. Williams