Joe Flacco creeping up on elite QB status in spite of public opinion

OWINGS MILLS, Md. – All the genius quarterbacks aside from Tom Brady are gone from the postseason. The other anointed ones like Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers have already lost in the playoffs or didn't get here. And standing in Brady's way is the man who has been to three the last five AFC Championship games.

At some point we have to realize Joe Flacco has been a very good quarterback for the Baltimore Ravens.

This is hard for many to accept because no quarterback in the NFL confounds as much as Flacco. He can look brilliant one week and then dreadful the next. His numbers don't shine like those of Brady or Brees or Rodgers. He will overthrow an open receiver so often it'll make you want to pound your head into a table.

Basically it boils down to this: When he is off, he can look really, really off. But when you need him most, he is usually there.

Quarterbacks do not accidentally reach three conference title games in five years. Sure, the Ravens have been known for great defenses that have pulled solid-but-not-spectacular quarterbacks deep into the playoffs. But over the last few years Baltimore has steadily moved away from defense, relying more and more on the elusiveness of running back Ray Rice and a fleet of fast receivers who can race downfield. The Ravens are to a point where they are almost as much an offensive team as a defensive team.

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And if that's the case, then isn't Flacco something more than the most maligned decent quarterback in the league?

He came into this postseason with an expiring contract that has not been resolved and with the question lingering as to whether he is the right man to lead the Ravens. He's responded in convincing fashion, throwing for 613 yards and five touchdowns in two playoff games. He repeatedly burned a Broncos defense that was supposed to crush him. He had three touchdown passes in Denver, including the 70-yard throw that saved last Sunday's game. His 331 yards and 116.2 passer rating shone brighter than Manning's 290 and 88.3.

After the game, linebacker Ray Lewis, the undisputed leader of the team for at least one more game, gushed about the Ravens QB, saying: "Joe Flacco grew up today."

The comment seemed to perplex coach John Harbaugh.

"Joe has been growing," Harbaugh said this week. "Joe has been growing like all of our guys. But it's definitely under a microscope at quarterback, right? It's definitely what everybody looks at and watches. To see Joe have that kind of game in that kind of an environment is something all of us who are in Joe's corner knew was there.

"It's been the last two weeks," Harbaugh continued, still speaking about Flacco's development. "(But) it's really been throughout the season we've seen the growth."

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Back in December it was reasonable to wonder about Flacco. Like those baffling times in the past he had fallen face down – literally. There was the awful late-season game at home against the Broncos when, trailing 10-0, he lobbed a pass near the Denver goal line that was intercepted by Chris Harris and returned 98 yards for a touchdown. What should have become a 10-7 game was suddenly 17-0 and Flacco's futile attempt to catch Harris ending with his sprawling, helpless dive across the M&T Bank Stadium turf became the play that summed up everybody's frustration with him. The man who forever seems to nudge greatness somehow always winds up lying flat and empty-handed.

He stayed for a long time on the turf that day – not injured, just distraught.

"I was pretty unhappy about it," he said of the interception. And the image of him sprawled on the ground flew around the Internet. It became a joke, imitated by thousands who saw it as a kind of reverse Tebowing. But unnoticed by many is the fact that the Harris interception was the last Flacco threw this season, which makes it a bigger symbol of his resilience. From yet another disaster has again come something good.

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More and more Ravens players have come to believe in Flacco as the team slowly begins to move away from the glare of Ray Lewis. On Wednesday, Rice called Flacco: "Truly our leader." His teammates have not forgotten how Flacco helped put them in position to win last year's AFC Championship Game in New England and that the pass that would have put them into the Super Bowl was thrown well enough for receiver Lee Evans to catch even if it was knocked away by the Patriots' Sterling Moore.

They like the way he never panics. His calm demeanor, sometimes robotic, sometimes silly, rarely changes. He doesn't scream. He doesn't seem bothered by the churning of questions about him. He shrugs off everything. And somehow that relaxes them.

"I've never played with a guy with that much talent," receiver Anquan Boldin said of Flacco on Wednesday. "I'm talking about physically. I think Joe is able to make any throw on the field. Talk about making big time throws, the deep ball, he does it all."

Cam Cameron, the offensive coordinator Flacco seemed to struggle under, is gone now. He seems to be thriving under replacement Jim Caldwell. Maybe this was the last piece he needed. Maybe now the inconsistency will diminish. Maybe we will all see what so many Ravens players insist they see: a quarterback who is ready to stop being good and take a step toward being great.

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