|Ryan and Flacco have come a long way since joining the NFL, but both still have something to prove. (Getty)|
The more I watch this year's quarterbacks, the more I'm pulling for an Atlanta-Baltimore Super Bowl, and I'll tell you why: The quarterbacks. Finally, mercifully, fittingly, a Super Bowl could settle the debate over which is better.
Joe Flacco or Matt Ryan.
Since the two were joined in the 2008 draft -- with Ryan the first quarterback taken and Flacco the second -- there's been an argument over who is superior. Both are durable. Both are productive. Both have lopsided winning records. And both are virtual playoff locks, with Ryan and Flacco combining for seven postseason appearances in four years.
They are two of the best young quarterbacks in today's NFL ... only that's not the question here. This is: Whom would you rather have? OK, then, give me Flacco for one compelling reason: He wins big games, and, yeah, I'm talking about the playoffs.
He won at least one postseason game in each of his first four seasons and twice led the Ravens to conference championship contests. Ryan hasn't. In fact, he hasn't won a playoff game, period, not only losing all three appearances but failing to score a point in his last postseason start.
That's the one knock on the guy, and, until he breaks through, this conversation is a no-brainer.
I know, Ryan is accurate, dependable and the face of the Atlanta franchise. He's also the NFL's leading passer this season, with a gaudy rating of 114.0, and he has more yards, touchdowns and completions in his career than Flacco. He also has a higher passer rating.
But this isn't fantasy-football, people. This is a league where you're measured by what you do in January and February, and, no offense, but Matt Ryan hasn't done diddly-poo.
Flacco has, with a 5-4 playoff record, including the first postseason defeat of Tom Brady in Foxborough and all but one of his victories on the road. Moreover, he's the first quarterback in league history to start and win playoff games in each of his first four pro seasons.
Now, I know what you're thinking: Flacco has the defense Matt Ryan does not. OK, fair enough. The Ravens annually are among the best defenses in the league, while Atlanta is not. So Ryan has to produce that much more. Maybe, except Baltimore had the NFL's No. 1-ranked defense in 2006 when Steve McNair was its quarterback, and it didn't win a playoff game.
In fact, it didn't win a playoff game from 2002-07 ... or until Joe Flacco came along. The defense didn't change. The quarterback did. Connect the dots.
Flacco's latest victory, Monday's 31-30 come-from-behind conquest of New England, was so impressive that coach John Harbaugh characterized him as "elite," which is high praise for the young man ... but also inaccurate. Quarterbacks don't gain elite consideration until or unless they reach a Super Bowl, which is why, say, Ben Roethlisberger is there and Tony Romo is not. Or Philip Rivers. Or Joe Flacco.
"To me," said Harbaugh, "Joe is a great quarterback. That is what we've been saying for five years."
But for five years he hasn't been to a Super Bowl. Get him there, and now we're talking.
Ryan is farther removed because ... well, because you can't be considered anything but a numbers cruncher if you can't win playoff games. There are a lot of overused adjectives in today's NFL, with "elite" at or near the top of the list, so let's get this straight. Tom Brady is elite. Peyton Manning is elite. Drew Brees is elite. Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan? Nope, not yet.
But they could be. They should be. That's why I want to see these two get to a Super Bowl and settle this debate once and for all.
There isn't much that separates them. Flacco has 46 regular-season wins; So does Ryan. Flacco is 29-5 at home. Ryan is 26-4. Flacco was one of two rookie quarterbacks in NFL history to start all 16 games and make the playoffs. Ryan was the other. Flacco just beat Brady. Ryan last week beat Manning. Flacco won one division title. So did Ryan.
For years, people in Baltimore complained that Flacco wasn't the quarterback to get their beloved Ravens over the top. Then he went into New England last January and led the Ravens on what should have been a game-winning drive in the AFC championship game -- a series that maybe, just maybe, would have defined him as an upper-echelon quarterback.
Only it didn't. He made the game-winning throw, but Lee Evans dropped it. He put the Ravens into position for overtime, but Billy Cundiff's game-tying field goal hooked wide left. In short, Flacco and the Ravens fell short of the mark.
So here we go again, only this time it's not just Joe Flacco who has something to prove. It's Matt Ryan, and his climb is steeper. Flacco knows what it's like to win playoff games. Ryan does not. Flacco knows what it's like to be one victory from a Super Bowl; Ryan does not.
"You look at those teams, and they're solid from the top on down," said one AFC offensive coordinator. "The ownership is good. The GM is good. The coaching is good. And the quarterbacking is good. The sky's the limit in both places."
So whom do you want -- Flacco in Baltimore or Ryan in Atlanta? I'll take the quarterback I can trust when I need to win most. Give me Joe Flacco.