Leave it to Lorenzo Neal, the loquacious and ferocious fullback with 16 years of head-knocking NFL experience, to compare his new quarterback to a teenaged girl in a prom dress.
In August, the four-time Pro Bowl selection signed with his seventh team, the Ravens. Neal knew the Ravens had a punishing defense. However, like many of us, he wondered whether an offense led by rookie quarterback Joe Flacco – the 18th overall draft pick out of Delaware – could hold up its end.
Late Sunday night, after returning to Baltimore following his team's 41-13 thrashing of the Texans, Neal called with his answer: Yes we can. The Ravens (6-3) had just set a franchise record by scoring 27 points or more for the fourth consecutive game, and Flacco (15 for 23, 185 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions) had summoned another poised, efficient effort in a first-year campaign full of them.
"Here's who Joe Flacco is," Neal said. "Our defense is like the most popular dude in school – a senior, the homecoming king. Flacco is like the beautiful sophomore girl he keeps bringing to all the dances, and now she's his prom date. Everybody keeps saying, 'Why would he take her?' But all she does is show up and command attention."
When I finished laughing, I asked Neal to put Flacco's success in more masculine terms. "Remember Ben Roethlisberger's rookie year in Pittsburgh?" Neal said. "He threw 13 times a game, or something like that, and they still went to the AFC championship game. [Offensive coordinator] Cam Cameron has done a great job of keeping things simple and not putting too much on the kid. And Flacco might not be as strong as Ben, but he's faster, and he gives us a great chance to win."
Sunday's victory, combined with the Steelers' defeat to the Colts, vaulted the Ravens into a tie for the AFC North lead. I've been one of those people who's skeptical about Baltimore's success, but the fact is the Ravens, under first-year coach John Harbaugh, have already exceeded last season's victory total and look like a bona fide playoff contender.
Neal, naturally, took it one step further: "We're two plays away from being 8-1, brother."
He was referring to the unnecessary roughness call on linebacker Jarret Johnson that aided Pittsburgh on a key second-half touchdown drive in a September game Baltimore eventually lost in overtime, and a dubious, third-down roughing-the-passer call on Terrell Suggs that extended a winning TD drive for the Titans the following week. Had neither of those flags been thrown, it's likely that Baltimore's 31-3 drubbing at the hands of Indy in mid-October would be the lone blemish on its record.
"We're good," Neal said. "Come see for yourself."
Will I take him up on his offer? Before we answer that, here are the usual 32 questions to ponder, submitted in the highly subjective pecking order that gets so many of you worked up like a kid primping for his/her first prom:
1. Tennessee Titans: Are the '72 Dolphins getting a teensy bit worried?
3. Pittsburgh Steelers: Could Big Ben and his bad shoulder use a little rest?
13. Indianapolis Colts: What was more impressive Sunday – Eric Foster's goal-line slam of Mewelde Moore, Reggie Wayne's uncanny concentration on tipped passes or Peyton Manning's sick play-fake on the winning touchdown pass?
14. Philadelphia Eagles: Will Hank Baskett offer to share his fiance with fellow wideouts DeSean Jackson and Kevin Curtis – and will he soon start donning a velvet smoking jacket around the locker room?
18. Miami Dolphins: Is Ricky getting ready to rev it up, and if so, how much scarier will this offense be?
20. Buffalo Bills: Is this team heading over Niagara Falls in a barrel, or what?
21. San Diego Chargers: Has it gotten so bad that eking out a one-point victory over a one-win team in early November is cause for celebration?
25. Houston Texans: Given the high expectations heading into this rapidly degenerating season, how is Gary Kubiak feeling about his job security?
27. Kansas City Chiefs: If you're Herm Edwards, why not go for two with the game on the line?
29. San Francisco 49ers: Yo, Mike Singletary – How do you not throw the ball?
30. St. Louis Rams: Has an interim coach ever resigned – at halftime?
32. Detroit Lions: Instead of letting them host a game every Thanksgiving, can we give this sorry franchise a less important holiday – like Columbus Day?
- the Ravens