The Baltimore Ravens haven't won a Super Bowl since the end of the 2000 season, and when the franchise then accomplished the feat, it was due primarily to one of the most furiously effective defenses the NFL has ever seen. In the 11 seasons since, the Ravens have nearly always been more than competitive, but they've not yet been able to ascend the NFL's highest peak and bring the Lombardi Trophy back to their home.
Their primary obstacle in this task has been the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have seen three Super Bowls since 2005 (winning two). In two of the last three seasons, the Ravens have been stopped in the postseason by a Steelers team that Baltimore can't seem to solve — at least after the regular season is done. This season, the Ravens have already swept the season series with a 35-7 blowout in the 2011 opener, and a 23-20 nail-biter last Sunday night. In each of those games, quarterback Joe Flacco put together a very solid performance and proved to be the difference in a way that no previous Ravens quarterback has generally been.
Then again, more was expected of Flacco from the start. Selected 18th overall in the 2008 NFL draft, Flacco put up great numbers in his rookie season and looked even better in 2009 and 2010. His path to franchise quarterback-dom, however, has been interrupted at various times in the past year by inexplicable lapses in mechanics and efficiency. Head coach John Harbaugh has felt the need to defend Flacco by calling him "elite" (the new buzzword around quarterbacks these days, it seems you can't go two seconds without someone telling you that you can't spell "elite" without "Eli") when the real purpose of Flacco's presence is to keep the thing moving on a play-by-play basis.
At times this season, he's gone from awful to transcendent -- sometimes, in the same game. Against the Steelers last Sunday, he seemed to take things to a different level when he not only put the Ravens ahead for good on a beautiful deep pass to rookie receiver Torrey Smith, but went back to Smith after a dropped pass in the end zone that could have been lethal.
Flacco sees the greater value in Smith. "He's a young guy that is learning and getting better at everything as the year goes on," the quarterback said on Wednesday. "The thing he's done really well is really stretch the field for us. When you have that in your offense, it takes a lot of pressure off the other guys that are trying to get open underneath because the defense has to do certain things to roll over the top of him and things like that. I think Anquan [Boldin] benefits from it, I think our tight ends benefit from it. I think it takes the pressure off of Ray [Rice], so that he's not always the guy getting doubled. It helps our whole team out."
The leadership showed up after Smith's drop in how Flacco handled it. "When we're in the middle of a drive like that, it's kind of tough to say anything to anybody," he said. "You're trying to line up and go to the next play. I was just hoping that he doesn't feel bad about those things. We're all in it together as a football team and the last thing I'm going to do is get on somebody for doing that. He had already felt bad and taken it personally enough and he doesn't need to do that. If we would have not won that game we would have all felt that we would have lost it as a team. There's no reason to put all that weight on his shoulders. So if I saw him, I would have said, 'Hey, who cares? Let's move on to the next play.' And he dropped a couple balls earlier in the game and that's exactly what we said to him. I said to him, 'Hey, who cares, man? Stuff happens. Move on to the next drive.'"
And at this point, Harbaugh just sees the results — he's past the idea that his guy needs labels. "I just hate that question so much because everybody defines 'elite' differently -- it just becomes kind of a bunch of baloney," Harbaugh said on Wednesday. "Of course I think he's elite in our definition because look at how many games he's won. To me, that's the definition. Then people want to minimize that by saying, 'Well, he's got a good football team.' Well, you know what? Most elite quarterbacks have a good football team around them. I don't know any that aren't surrounded by a good football team, right? He's our quarterback. He's an elite quarterback in our view, no doubt.
"I was just really happy to see him have an opportunity in that environment [speaking of the 92-yard game-winning drive against the Steelers] to actually do it. We understand the criticism. I mean it goes with it. But for him [Flacco] to do it twice now against [Pittsburgh] in different ways is a good thing. We didn't do it in Tennessee and we didn't do it in Jacksonville, so that criticism for all of us is definitely warranted."
After the Ravens face off with the 2-6 Seattle Seahawks this Sunday, Flacco's got a trio of tough pass defenses to deal with — the Cincinnati Bengals, San Francisco 49ers (the "Harbaugh Bowl") and the Cleveland Browns. But Flacco's past the point where he's affected by the vagaries of the game-to-game grind — it's all about the bigger picture. Especially in the postseason.
"The biggest thing for us when we're throwing the ball is to get completions," he said, when asked about points of improvement. "I think in the games that we haven't played very well, it's been tough to get those completions. People cover us pretty tightly and we hadn't executed some things in pass protection and throwing the ball, so I think the biggest thing for us is doing the things that we do well, and doing the things that our young receivers like to do. When everybody is confident about what we're running out there, we can execute that at a high level."
How does Flacco view the whole "elite" argument? As he would a half-decent pass rusher — he simply turns away and moves on. "I really try not to watch that stuff and pay attention to it, even when we're doing good," he said. "But obviously you hear rumblings and you've got your media guys telling you things, especially when they're good things. I think they stay away from you and try not to tell you all the bad things that they're saying, but you hear a little bit about it.
"Like I said, I haven't really paid much attention to it. I haven't heard it first hand, but obviously we knew that was a big win for us and as far as I'm concerned that's what I'm going to take it as — a win against Pittsburgh that was a big division win. That's about it.
"If I don't already view myself as being a good quarterback, then I think we're in trouble."
The more Flacco sees it that way, the more the rest of the league should be able to share that view in lock step. And the Ravens will be one step closer to their ultimate goal.