PITTSBURGH (AP) — This is why Joe Flacco wanted to play in Pittsburgh.
The chance to be the quarterback in big games, in a supportive city passionate about football, in a stadium with a significant home-field advantage.
Only he didn’t expect it would be for this team, the Baltimore Ravens, in this AFC championship game against the Steelers, the team he spent several years watching from up close while practicing daily in the training complex it shares with Pitt.
No, Flacco came to the city six years ago to play for Pittsburgh, not oppose it, except his major college career didn’t work out as planned. Banished to Pitt’s bench, possibly overlooked during a coaching staff change, his path to Sunday’s AFC title game took a detour through college football’s back-channels to Delaware, making him a Blue Hen rather than a Panther.
“I never got a shot,” said Flacco, who transferred after throwing only four passes in two seasons at Pitt. “I still carry it with me that I’m a I-AA guy and I had to go down to the minor leagues of college football and prove who I was.”
That circuitous route didn’t keep him out of the big leagues. Now, his first championship game as an NFL quarterback will be in the stadium, Heinz Field, he planned to play his college career. That is only a subplot to his primary goal of becoming the first rookie quarterback to take his team to the Super Bowl.
If it happens to take place in the city that effectively shunned him, well only the better.
“I understand that the scale is a little bit bigger, but it’s still a football game,” said Flacco, only 13 months removed from playing in the Football Championship Subdivision [formerly I-AA] title game. “But it’s still a football game. We’re going against the Pittsburgh Steelers, yes. I’m just going to look at my teammates and we’ll all have confidence in each other.”
Flacco’s Pittsburgh counterpart, Ben Roethlisberger, knows all about the pressures — and, perhaps, the nervous anxiety — Flacco is going through this weekend.
Roethlisberger went through the same experience as a rookie in 2004, when the Steelers were 16-1 going into their AFC championship game against New England but lost 41-27 partly because he was outplayed by Tom Brady.
Roethlisberger, whose own college career was played at Miami (Ohio) rather than one of the big-time schools, led the Steelers to the Super Bowl and won it a year later, but that followed another full NFL season.
“I just hope it [this AFC championship game] isn’t as bad as the first I had here,” Roethlisberger said, referring to the three interceptions he threw against New England as a rookie. “That’s been the key to everyone’s success or failure in the postseason, if you take care of the ball.”
Roethlisberger understands the challenge Flacco faces, trying to disprove the theory that it’s simply too much to ask a rookie to win a game this big. Already, Flacco is the only rookie quarterback to win two playoff games in a season.
“He does remind me quite a bit of Ben when he was in his first year,” Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. “He has a tremendously strong arm, he has the size factor Ben had [Flacco is 6-6, Roethlisberger 6-5], and he has the ability to create pressure with his legs Ben has.”
LeBeau has backed off some of the Steelers’ blitzing this season, based on the opponent, but he conceivably could crank it up against the rookie. Several Steelers players said the game speed and intensity will be unlike anything Flacco has seen — and, no doubt, they want to exploit his lack of experience.
Flacco’s biggest strength is his ability to dodge big mistakes; he didn’t throw an interception in playoff wins over the Dolphins or Titans. He was less effective during two regular-season losses to the Steelers, throwing for only 115 yards while being intercepted twice in a 13-9 loss in Baltimore last month.
The Ravens also may be a weary team — this is the 18th consecutive week they’ve played — and Pittsburgh has a health advantage. Ravens linebacker-defensive end Terrell Suggs (shoulder) may be out for the first time in his career, and wide receiver Derrick Mason (knee, shoulder) and cornerback Samari Rolle (groin) are hurting.
Another hurdle: Baltimore is trying to become only the second No. 6-seeded team to make the Super Bowl. Only the Steelers three years ago accomplished it.
So it may come down to this for the Ravens in the first matchup of No. 1 and No. 2 defenses in an NFL conference game in 30 years: Can Flacco do the previously unimaginable by leaping so many hurdles, including very cold weather, and taking a team to the Super Bowl as a rookie? Something Elway, Brady, Marino, the Mannings and Roethlisberger couldn’t do?
“We hate to compare guys to other guys,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “We just think Joe’s ability stands on its own. He’s Joe Flacco, and that’s going to be the comparison, maybe down the road, for every quarterback.”