Flacco silencing critics, establishing legacy before our eyes

by | Senior NFL Columnist
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- People in Baltimore tell me Super Bowl XLVII is all about the end of Ray Lewis' storied career, but I'm not so sure. I think it's more about the beginning of Joe Flacco's.

Because where we once wondered when Flacco would go from an ordinary Joe to an upper echelon quarterback, now we know. That time is now, with Flacco making it to the Super Bowl in his fifth season, thanks to a 28-13 upset of New England in the AFC Championship Game.

Credit the victory to a Ravens defense that shut out Tom Brady and the Patriots for one half, or credit it to Baltimore's resilience, with the Ravens rebounding from a halftime deficit for the second straight week. But I credit it to Flacco, who not only outplayed Brady for a third straight time but silenced his critics -- hopefully, once and for all.

"He's a great quarterback," said receiver Anquan Boldin. "I don't know why people keep dogging him. The bigger the situation, the bigger he plays."

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So we're reminded ... again.

With the victory, Flacco ran his playoff record to a glittering 8-4. Moreover, in just five seasons he's been to three conference championship games and has more road victories (six) than any quarterback in playoff history. Plus, he just knocked off Brady one week after he overcame Peyton Manning and two weeks after he bested Andrew Luck.

But that's not all. In three playoff games he has eight touchdown passes and no interceptions. In fact, he hasn't thrown an interception since the first half of a Dec. 16 loss to Denver, and that tells you something about the guy. It tells you he's something special.

"Luck's a pretty good quarterback, and Manning's a pretty good quarterback and Brady is a great quarterback," said coach John Harbaugh. "All of those guys are great players, but Joe's a great quarterback. And Joe has proven that. He's not just proving it this year; he's proven it for five years. But to do it on this stage and to have the success he's had ..."

He didn't need to finish.

All I know is that the Ravens didn't make a move on New England until the second half -- or, until they took the handcuffs off Flacco and cut him loose. Where he threw 12 passes in the first half, he threw 24 in the second. Where he threw for no touchdowns in the first half, he threw for three in the second. Where he trailed in the first half, he put away mighty New England in the second.

"He was," as Harbaugh put it, "Brady-like. Brady gets it to the right guy in coverage where the ball should go. And Joe did a great job of that."

Essentially, the Ravens decided to go as far as Flacco would take them, and he took them for touchdowns on three successive drives of the second half. Granted, New England was missing its best cornerback, Aqib Talib, who bowed out in the first quarter with a thigh injury, but it wasn't replacement Kyle Arrington whom Baltimore targeted. The Ravens simply decided to unshackle Flacco and see what happened.

"We realized we needed to put some pressure on them," said Flacco. "We didn’t come all the way here to play it safe and hope to win."

That's one way of putting it. Harbaugh had another.

"It became apparent we had to go after them a little more and loosen up a little bit," he said. "I feel like Joe is capable of taking over a game, and it just felt like with the offense we were going against we had to do that."

So they turned the ball over to Flacco, just as they turned it over to him a week ago in Denver when he led the Ravens to an upset of the top-seeded Broncos. That game was supposed to be an anomaly, a victory made possible by the improbable play of Denver's secondary -- er, Rahim Moore in particular.

But it wasn't. It was Flacco rescuing a team that has come to rely more and more on the guy, and it's apparent why. Because he's a damned good quarterback.

"We won," said wide receiver Torrey Smith, "and we won because of him. He was driving us down the field and he made some plays -- some big-time throws. I always say people should get off him, but I think he's gotten some respect, especially today."

He should. Until Flacco arrived, Baltimore had a revolving cast of quarterbacks, some more successful than others. But the Ravens were always looking for someone to stabilize the position, and that included the year after they won Super Bowl XXXV. That was the year they jettisoned Trent Dilfer for free-agent Elvis Grbac, a move that backfired when they bowed out of the playoffs after one victory and Grbac abruptly retired.

That Ravens team was dominated by defense. This Ravens team is dominated by Ray Rice, Flacco and a defense that improved so remarkably the past month with the return of injured players that it limited Brady and Manning to four touchdowns in nine quarters (14 of Denver's points were by returns).

But the defense doesn't get to protect leads until or unless Flacco is on his game, and he hasn't been off for weeks.

Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers once said that the playoffs were all about legacies, especially with quarterbacks, and Joe Flacco finally is making a name for himself. It was on this field a year ago that he outplayed Brady and came this close to beating New England, only to succumb when Lee Evans muffed a touchdown pass and Billy Cundiff blew a game-tying field goal. That wasn't going to happen again because Joe Flacco wouldn't allow it.

"I think he's writing his legacy as we speak," said tight end Dennis Pitta. "He's a great quarterback, and he's getting to prove that right now. These are big ballgames and huge, critical situations that he's delivered in. That just adds to his legacy and the great player he's been. We have a ton of confidence in Joe."

They should. The guy wins.

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