Flacco threatening to steal Dilfer's title

Michael Silver
Yahoo Sports

SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Trent Dilfer cocked his right arm, opened his seldom-speechless mouth and prepared to devour another piece of hamachi. His face was filled with delectable satisfaction – until I posed a scenario which, to much of the football-watching nation, would be regarded as highly unappetizing.

"A Joe Flacco vs. Alex Smith Super Bowl?" Dilfer repeated, grimacing playfully. "Would America be ready for that?"

As we pondered the possibility at a low-key sushi spot near the San Francisco 49ers' training facility Wednesday afternoon, Dilfer knew precisely where I was going with this: Should the Baltimore Ravens defeat the New England Patriots in Sunday's AFC championship game, and the 49ers prevail over the New York Giants in the NFC title game, Jim and John Harbaugh's parents won't be the only people cringing come Super Sunday.

Dilfer feels their pain. Tebow mania has been extinguished. Peyton Manning may never play again (he's history, according to Rob Lowe, the best-looking information man in the history of sports journalism). Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees have been sent home.

[ Wetzel: Harbaugh family stressing about possible Super Bowl meeting ]

In our quarterback-obsessed football universe, a rematch of the Tom Brady vs. Eli Manning clash from Super Bowl XLII is the only potential marquee matchup left.

If it's the opposite, and first-timers Flacco and Smith face off in Indianapolis two weeks from Sunday, Dilfer knows what's coming. Eleven years ago, after a sushi lunch about 20 miles to the north of where we ate on Wednesday (and a few blocks from Brady's childhood home), Dilfer told me the day before leading the Ravens to an AFC championship game upset of the Oakland Raiders, "I want my legacy to be that I was the quarterback of the team that won the Super Bowl in spite of its quarterback."

The Ravens did, and Dilfer was and is – at least to the untrained eye. Whereas Tebow's aesthetically ugly yet stunningly successful season opened minds to the notion that our traditional criteria for measuring quarterbacking proficiency may need revision, Dilfer seldom, if ever, gets any of that all he does is win rationalization on a belated basis.

Fortunately for Dilfer, he is a visible, voluble and highly accomplished ESPN broadcaster who's willing and able to laugh at himself – and he's happy to embrace that Worst Quarterback Ever To Win A Super Bowl mantle, even if deep inside he suspects it isn't really deserved.

He's also uniquely positioned to understand Flacco's frustration and to quarrel with the Baltimore quarterback's vocal objection to being typecast as Dilfer 2.0.

Flacco has done a lot of talking in recent months about the way he is portrayed, from complaining about a lack of attention relative to Tebow (join the club, dude) to saying he doesn't receive enough credit when the Ravens win.

His argument resonates on some levels: He has been a starter since his rookie season, has won 44 of 64 regular-season games and made the playoffs in each of his four campaigns. He has won at least one playoff game in every season and is 6-3 overall in the postseason. It's tough to dismiss those results, even on a team full of high-profile defensive stars.

And yet, the Ravens had control of last year's AFC divisional-round playoff game against the Steelers before coughing up three unconscionable turnovers in the third quarter, and two of those were on Flacco. That's a memory that's hard for many observers to shake, absent a conference championship.

While Flacco has had his share of apparent breakthrough moments – such as his 26-yard touchdown pass to Torrey Smith with eight seconds remaining to beat the Steelers in November, completing a 92-yard game-winning drive – he has also had enough stinkers (remember his gruesome performance in a 12-7 defeat to the Jaguars in October on Monday Night Football?) that many fans still regard him as a potential liability.

[ Related: Joe Flacco called out by teammate Ed Reed ]

Even Alex Smith, a former No. 1 overall pick who until this season was considered a quintessential draft bust, has rehabilitated his image to the point of having less to prove this Sunday than Flacco. Smith engineered a pair of dramatic touchdown drives in the final minutes of the 49ers' 36-32 divisional-round victory over the Saints, after a regular season in which he produced five fourth-quarter comeback victories.

"If it's Alex vs. Joe, the story will be 'Clutch Alex,' " Dilfer said. "It wasn't just New Orleans. It was Philly, Detroit, Cincinnati … he had all those fourth-quarter comebacks this season. I don't know if it'll be 'Clutch Joe.' I think Joe will play second fiddle to Alex – unless, Sunday, he does something clutch. So, on Sunday, don't judge his performance by 'How much?' but by 'When?' "

In other words, if Flacco is neither statistically prolific nor shines down the stretch, but the Ravens win ugly anyway – "a Dilferesque performance," as my sushi partner self-deprecatingly calls it – he'll spend two weeks getting relentlessly dissed amid the Super Bowl hype.

If so, Dilfer, who has been there, done that, doesn't think Flacco should bother trying to plead his case to the masses.

Of Flacco's overt desire for more credit, Dilfer says, "I can't understand it for the life of me. What good comes out of that? Except that, he's younger, and I was seven years in and had been through the fires. I had lost that battle in Tampa, so I felt, 'Why fight it?'

"In today's football, if people can't quantify your excellence, then they don't get it. Unless you're Tim Tebow, I suppose. 'Game manager' is used as a derogatory term, but it doesn't have to be. There's a value in not turning the ball over, in protecting the ball and putting your team in good positions.

"To use a business analogy: Is a CEO's job to get all the fame, be flamboyant, socialize and be in the tabloids while performing incredible feats of valor in a public setting – or is it to work behind the scenes and get the most out of his thousands of employees?"

Though Flacco didn't throw an interception in Baltimore's 20-13 divisional-round victory over the Houston Texans, his stats (14 for 27, 176 yards, two touchdowns) weren't especially impressive. He looked tentative at times and absorbed five sacks.

On Monday the star of that victory over the Texans, veteran Ravens safety Ed Reed, said on SiriusXM NFL radio, "I think Joe was kind of rattled a little bit by that defense" and challenged his quarterback to "get rid of the ball."

Flacco did his best to downplay the criticism, and he and Reed even staged a fake confrontation on the way to practice Thursday.

[ Related: Nosy neighbor rats out Joe Flacco ]

The fact remains, however, that the only way Flacco can fight back against the stigma that plagues him is to beat the Brady and the Patriots – and to do it one of two ways.

"That's what Sunday is for Joe," Dilfer says. "If Alex wins, it doesn't even matter how, because he did it [last] Saturday. Same with Eli and Brady, because they've won Super Bowls. Joe has to excel in the win, or he has to be clutch, or both."

If not – and if 49ers win, and the least-sexy quarterback duel in recent Super Bowl memory comes to fruition – Flacco will still be the guy getting no love.

Dilfer's advice: Just go with it, at least to a point.

"Even if Joe wins the Super Bowl," Dilfer says, laughing, "he can't be The Worst Quarterback [to win it all]. I'm going to say, 'I still hold the title.'"

TAKE IT TO THE ATM

Flacco will come up big – and the Patriots' dubious defense will prove to be the team's downfall – as the Ravens pull off an AFC championship game upset in Foxborough, Mass. Sunday. … The 49ers will grind out a tense, sloppy victory over the Giants at muddy Candlestick Park. … By the time we're done hyping the Harbaugh Bowl, sports journalists – and fans – will look back longingly at the restrained coverage of Jerome Bettis' final NFL game in his hometown six Super Bowls earlier.

PLEASE, BOSS, SEND ME TO …

Candlestick Park, for an NFC championship game I can attend without having to board an airplane (hallelujah), and one which should be highly entertaining and competitive. And given the wet forecast, I'll likely be flashing back to the last conference-title game I covered in that stadium, the Packers' 23-10 victory over the 49ers 14 years ago. A challenge to young journalists: Click on the link to the accompanying story I wrote for Sports Illustrated, and notice the quote from Green Bay wideout Antonio Freeman, discussing his touchdown reception off Niners cornerback Marquez Pope: "I treated him like a freak; I turned him out." See if you can get someone to say anything that brutal, cocky and explicit on Sunday – and let me know how that goes. (And yes, I am also revealing myself to be brutally cocky … as if y'all didn't know.).

LIES, LIES, LIES

1. Following a reported Miami nightclub scuffle involving Dez Bryant and Lil Wayne, the New Orleans rapper dispatched former Chiefs coach Todd Haley to break the Cowboys receiver's thumbs.

2. Haley was later apprehended and arrested for aggravated assault after authorities were shown an incriminating text message Lil Wayne had sent the coach – thanks to an informant whose last name rhymes with cannoli.

3. After being indicted on a count of trafficking weed by a Kentucky grand jury, Jerome Simpson received some good news from a California medical marijuana dispensary, which plans to build an endorsement campaign around the Bengals wideout: Ganj that's so kind, you'll flip …)

LET'S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …

My former college newspaper boss and close friend Mike Fleiss, whose uproarious and glorious entertainment career reached a new pinnacle last Saturday night when he served as a judge on the Miss America Pageant. That's my boy, third from the right – the tall and really, really, really, ridiculously good-looking one. You can blame most of what bothers you about my column (see "brutally cocky" reference above) at least somewhat on him.

THIS WEEK'S PROOF THAT CAL IS THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE

It was a rough week for the Cal football program, as former Bears standout-turned-highly-regarded defensive line coach and recruiting ace Tosh Lupoi was lured away to Washington by huge money and a boat. Yes, a (expletive) boat. Lupoi will be missed – I wish him well; he's a Bear for life – and the impact of his departure on what was shaping up as a top-five recruiting class could be substantial. However, I foresee choppy seas for our purple-clad rivals to the north, as karma has a way of sending stowaways (like mangy Huskies) overboard. It started Thursday night in Seattle, as walk-on Robert Thurman scored a career-high 16 points to help Mike Montgomery's Bears to a 69-66 victory over Washington. Cal (16-4, 6-1) moved into sole possession of first place in the Pac 12. Meanwhile, in Berkeley, Lindsay Gottlieb's Bears rolled to their fifth straight victory, pummeling the Huskies 71-47. Junior center Talia Caldwell led Cal with a career-high 18 points, with backup from freshmen Reshanda Gray (16 points) and Brittany Boyd (14 points, eight assists, three steals). The Golden Bears (14-5, 5-2) are third in the conference standings, a half-game behind second-place USC, and are getting stronger as the year goes on. Oh, and there's an ice and snow storm in the Pacific Northwest – not the best boating weather, for what it's worth.

Meanwhile, Senior Day is somehow already upon us for eight members of Cal's second-ranked women's swimming and diving team, as the Bears host No. 5 Arizona on Friday and No. 24 Arizona State on Saturday in their final home dual meets at Spieker Pool. So, before they try to help lead Teri McKeever's Bears to their third NCAA title in four seasons – I told you a long time ago that she's the best swimming coach in America, and she'll further prove it next summer in London as the first female head coach of the U.S. women's Olympic swim team – I'd like to extend my deep appreciation for swimmers Ursula Dailey, Colleen Fotsch, Shelly Harper, Sara Isakovic, Liv Jensen and Katherine Raatz and divers Alissa Barker and Molly Hayes.

Finally, former Cal (and current Cleveland Browns) linebacker Scott Fujita got love on Twitter from magnificent Modern Family star Jesse Tyler Ferguson. That is all.

YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK

chargers status quo

LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK

When we last left Stephen Ross at the hypothetical microphone, the Dolphins' owner was paralyzed by the enticing prospect of bringing in Jeff Fisher as his coach. Alas, that fell through, as Ross resisted Fisher's attempts to impugn upon the almighty authority of general manager Jeff Ireland. Now, with the head coaching search chugging toward a decidedly underwhelming conclusion – and with reports of which candidate the owners prefers bordering on the farcical – I bring you Ross and Ireland (backed at the outset by a chorus of peppy employees) with the franchise's new Talking Heads-inspired theme song. To the tune of "Road To Nowhere".

Well we know where we're goin'
But we don't know who we'll hire
And we know what we're blowin'
But we can't say who's at fault
And we're not little children
But we act like you are
And the future is awesome
Give us time to work it out

Yeah …
We're on a road to nowhere
Come on and buy
Tickets to see us go there
Tickets to ride

I'm feelin' our fans' frustration
And you know,
We're on the road to 8 and 8
Here we go, here we go

We're on a ride to nowhere
Come on and buy
Everything that I'm sellin'
You'll take that lie

Maybe your mom's a prostitute
We don't care
Givin' Matt Moore the ball and he'll
Take you there … take you there …

We're on a road to nowhere
We're on a road to nowhere

Wanted a Young Don Shula
But it proved to be futile
and it's all right, baby, it's all right

And I'm very sad to say
Now it's more like the Young Dave
And it's all right, baby, it's all right

Last year's team went 6 and 10
Don't you question our GM
And it's all right, baby, it's all right

Parcells messed with all our minds
Now King Carl's on the line
and it's all right, baby, it's all right

Mike Zimmer was too damn blunt
Spoke the truth – we had to punt
And it's all right, baby, it's all right

Did you like Tim Tebow Day
When we gave that game away?
Well it's all right, baby, it's all right

Season tickets you'll renew
But we'll make a fool of you
And it's all right, baby, it's all right

We're on a road to nowhere
Hey!
We're on a road to nowhere
Waaaaaa!
We're on a road to nowhere Haaa! Haaa!
We're on a road to nowhere

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