NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Baltimore Ravens rookie quarterback Joe Flacco is a man of many talents. He has a cannon arm that fires one of the prettiest spirals you will ever see, perfect for making a pass cut through the toughest wind.
He has unusual grace for a man who measures 6-foot-6, allowing him to get away from the rush at critical times. Finally, he has an old soul seemingly impervious to the pressures that usually go with being a rookie in the NFL.
And as Saturday afternoon turned to night, Flacco, just short of his 24th birthday, showed off his most impressive skill to date.
He made time stand still.
Really, this had nothing to do with Flacco, as the officials missed an obvious delay-of-game call in the fourth quarter. But when it happened, Flacco was able to take advantage, converting a third-and-2 for a 23-yard gain to tight end Todd Heap.
It was one of three critical plays by Flacco, who the Ravens rode for everything he could provide. Coupled with a defense that came up with three turnovers in its own territory, Baltimore advanced to the AFC championship game with a 13-10 victory over top-seeded Tennessee in the second round of the playoffs at LP Field.
Flacco also gave his best from the start, as his 48-yard touchdown pass to Derrick Mason was something out of a textbook on throwing. Flacco gunned the ball almost the entire distance, beating not only cornerback Nick Harper and safety Chris Hope, but a gusting wind that would have reduced most normal passes to a fluttering mess.
"There are only a few guys I've been around who can do that," Baltimore offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. "This is two weeks in a row he's had to deal with that kind of wind. But it's like I told coach [John] Harbaugh before the season, wind is not going to be a problem for our offense. Not with Joe throwing."
Or as veteran NFL quarterback Trent Green, who was at the game to serve as an analyst, put it: "For a rookie to make that throw in that situation, that's real impressive."
Still, the play that is going to be reviewed time and again as these playoffs are examined and analyzed to death is the latest bit of bad officiating by the NFL men in black and white. With Baltimore facing third down from its own 32-yard line, Flacco and the offense got to the line with time running short.
With Flacco still waiting on the snap, the play clock clearly hit zero. It didn't take a stopwatch to figure out that the Ravens took at least another full second before snapping the ball.
In a season with one bad call after another – the illegal-contact penalty against the Indianapolis Colts on the opening week of the playoffs was the most recent example – this was yet another obvious error.
That said, Flacco made the most of the moment. He hit Heap with a crossing route over the middle, getting the ball over one defender and just ahead of another as Heap jumped for it.
The play wasn't quite Joe Montana to Dwight Clark, but considering Flacco is only a year removed from playing at the University of Delaware, it was only a notch or two removed.
Like Montana, Flacco is unflappable, armed with a disaffected stare that is equal parts red-carpet cool and poker-hall aggressive.
"You read his eyes and there's nothing to read … there's nothing that fazes him," Heap said of Flacco, who is the latest in a long string of quarterbacks the Ravens have tried to find.
Flacco looked at the moment as nothing more than an opportunity. Success wasn't expected, but neither was failure.
"What's there to panic about?" he said. "I'm not afraid of failure. If you're afraid to go out there and fail, that's when you do have panic and you do fail. You just go do it and see what happens."
Yeah, with his team's playoff fate on the line and a bunch of veterans like linebacker Ray Lewis leaning on him, Flacco's attitude was basically, "What, me worry?"
Then again, when you have an arm like Flacco, you don't have to be too concerned about anything, even when you're throwing into the teeth of a solid wind. The wind was strong enough that it made Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher go for it on a fourth-and-8 from the 30-yard line in the second quarter rather than use strong-legged kicker Rob Bironas.
It was one of many decisions and plays that Fisher and the Titans will beat themselves up about after a 13-3 season that seemed destined for more. In fact, the Titans had control for most of this game, outgaining Baltimore 397 to 211, including only 50 yards rushing for the Ravens on 30 carries.
That led to obvious frustration for the Titans.
"We will beat them nine out of 10 times, but this time things didn't fall our way," said Titans running back LenDale White, who took over after the Titans lost starter Chris Johnson (11 carries, 72 yards and one touchdown) in the second quarter to an ankle injury. "I'm not taking anything away from Baltimore. I lose graciously."
The loss of Johnson left the Titans with no speed. But that wasn't their biggest problem. Collins floated a pass for an interception to end a drive after the Titans reached the Baltimore 32.
On the next drive, White appeared to have a first down at the Ravens' 17 before he was stripped by Jarrett Johnson for a fumble that Baltimore recovered just before halftime.
But the killing drive for Tennessee came when it reached the Baltimore 13 and Collins hit tight end Alge Crumpler for a 7-yard gain. Crumpler coughed up the ball as he was hit inside the 10, ending Tennessee's fourth drive in Baltimore territory that yielded no points.
By contrast, the Ravens made the most of the five times they reached Tennessee's side of the field. The performance was far from pretty for Flacco, who completed only 11 of 22 for 161 yards. But it was mistake-free and opportunistic.
In some ways, it was timeless.
Or as Harbaugh put it: "He's no rookie quarterback."