Senior NFL Columnist

Flacco emerges from Superdome darkness with SB MVP performance


NEW ORLEANS -- Sitting on the end of the bench, cool as can be, darkness dimming the Superdome around him, the uncertainty of the situation unsettling to most, Joe Flacco seemed to shine brighter than anybody else during the 34-minute break when the lights went out on Super Bowl XLVII Sunday.

If he was bothered, it didn't show. The beam of validation, the shine of Super Bowl greatness, seemed to be emanating from a quarterback who needed it, a quarterback who until Sunday was considered part of the second-tier group of passers in the league.

At the time of the blackout, when a power outage dimmed the lights and seemed to give life to the San Francisco 49ers, the Ravens led 28-6 and Flacco had three touchdown passes in the books, so maybe he had reason to be calm.

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This was his time, his moment. Seeing him calmly sitting on the bench, you could tell he knew it.

Flacco came in on a playoff roll, throwing eight touchdown passes and no interceptions in three games, outdueling Tom Brady and Peyton Manning in doing so. But until the clock's final seconds ticked off Sunday night, and the Ravens walked off the field with a thrilling 34-31 victory over the 49ers, there was still a line of Flacco doubters as long as you could see.

It took a goal-line stand by a fatigued defense for Flacco and the Ravens to get the victory, but it was his play that put them in position to win. Only an inspired second-half by the never-quit 49ers made him sweat a little.

But Flacco never cracked. When the 49ers cut it to two in the fourth quarter, he calmly led the Ravens to an important field goal.

Any time your name goes up next to Joe Montana, arguably the greatest postseason quarterback ever, the line of skeptics needs to go away. Flacco was named the game's MVP by throwing for 287 yards and three touchdowns, all in the first half.

Is he elite? It's too soon for that.

What he is now is something else that defines quarterbacks, a Super Bowl winner. And Flacco didn't just manage the game like some Super Bowl winners.

He won it.

This game will be remembered as the last game for Ray Lewis. It will also be remembered for the 34-minute delay. More than that, though, I think it should be remembered as the game that ended doubts about Flacco.

This was about his right arm. It was about extending plays with his legs, throwing darts to open receivers. It was about Joe Flacco telling you, me, all the doubters and anyone who would listen, that he is much more than any of us thought.

I won't say this was the case of the pure pocket passer beating the running quarterback because I think San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick has morphed into a nice passer, but the reality is that's the case.

The pocket passer won again.

In the end, Flacco finished the postseason with 11 TDs and no INTs. He joins Montana, who had 11 touchdown passes and no interceptions in the 1989 postseason for the 49ers, and Kurt Warner in the 2008 playoffs as the only QBs to accomplish that feat.

"Joe Montana has been my favorite quarterback, so to be put anywhere next to him is pretty cool," Flacco said.

His play earned him a ride from some of his teammates as they tried to lift him up on the shoulders as the game ended. In classic Flacco style, he asked down. If you know him, you know that's not his way.

This is a low-key quarterback who seems about as excitable as someone sitting through a poetry reading. But later, as he held the Lombardi Trophy high, smiling for all to see, you could see that the weight of the world had been lifted off his back.

He also was caught on camera yelling something I can't write here. Let's just say, it was "something awesome" without the something and another expletive in its place.

Not bad for Mr. Milquetoast. At least he isn't part of the Lewis Revival tour.

Flacco's throwing set the tone. The Ravens spread out the 49ers -- necessary strategy -- and he came out cooking, unleashing a bullet throw to Anquan Boldin for the first score between two defenders.

Then he came back and made nice read to hit Dennis Pitta for his second touchdown pass. The third scoring pass of the half came when he scrambled up in the pocket and saw Jacoby Jones wide open for a 56-yard touchdown pass and a 21-3 lead.

"Joe has been huge for us for so long," Pitta said. "He's taken a lot of criticism over his career for whatever reason, but we've always believed in him. We've known the kind of player he is. He showed up on the biggest stage and performed."

You can understand the critics. Flacco came into the postseason completing 59.8 percent of his passes with 22 touchdown passes and 10 picks. Those aren't exactly numbers that make one think "elite."

But he hasn't been picked in 195 passes, had no picks in the playoffs, and he has the field moxie you love. Take a key third-and-1 play in the fourth quarter when the 49ers cut the lead to 31-29. Flacco had three plays to choose from when he went to the line of scrimmage.

He picked a pass play. That's ballsy. And then he threw a rocket to Boldin for a first down to set up a key field goal.

"He's got the guts of a burglar," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said.

When the postseason started, Flacco turned it on, something he seems to do. The timing is perfect, too. He's about to be paid.

Flacco's rookie contract is up, and that means the Ravens will have to make a long-term deal. There is talk that he turned down a deal that averaged $16 million a year before the season and wants something more like $20 million per season. If the two sides can't work out a deal, he will get the franchise tag and be paid $14.6 million if he plays for it.

"We just won a Super Bowl," Flacco said. "That's the last thing I'm concerned about. But he did let me know that if the day came, I could go beat on his [owner Steve Bisciotti] desk and really put it to him, so that's exactly what I am going to do."

The Ravens aren't going to let him go anywhere. That would be tantamount to yelling, "No more crabs in the Baltimore area." Flacco showed Sunday night that he has earned the right to a new deal -- a big one.

You have to love his big-game style. He might not be Broadway Joe. But Baltimore Joe -- or Bourbon Street Joe if you like -- showed the world that on the game's biggest stage, he could shine as bright as any quarterback who was there before him -- even through the darkness.

Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.

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