FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) - No doubt about it.
When you beat the best - and Joe Flacco did that in consecutive games - the skeptics should be silenced.
"I'm so glad we're going to the Super Bowl right now," Baltimore wide receiver Torrey Smith said, "so people can get off Joe's back."
Flacco threw three touchdown passes in the second half, helping the Ravens reach the Super Bowl for the first time in 12 years with a 28-13 win over the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game Sunday.
He beat two-time NFL MVP Tom Brady one week after outplaying Peyton Manning, who has won the award four times, in a 38-35 double-overtime win over the Denver Broncos. And that followed a 24-9 victory over budding star quarterback Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts in the wild-card round.
"We've always believed in Joe," coach John Harbaugh said, "and for Joe to come out and to have this kind of a game and this kind of a stage three weeks in a row - Luck's a pretty good quarterback, Manning's a pretty good quarterback and Brady's a great quarterback.
"All those guys are great players, but Joe's a great quarterback. And Joe has proven that. He's not just proven it this year, he's proven it for five years."
No NFL quarterback - not Brady, not Manning - has more than Flacco's 62 victories, including the postseason, since the start of the 2008 season. No NFL quarterback has more than his six postseason wins on the road. And no other quarterback has a postseason victory in each of his first five seasons during the Super Bowl era.
"He's a great quarterback," said wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who caught two touchdown passes. "I don't know why people keep doubting him because the bigger the situation is, the bigger he plays, and he's proven that time and time again. So maybe they'll get off his back now."
Finally, he will be the most accomplished quarterback in one of his playoff games when he faces the 49ers, who are favored by 4 1/2 points, in New Orleans on Feb. 3.
San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick may have made a splash with his running and passing skills, but he's started just nine games in his two pro seasons.
Flacco has started every Ravens game - 80 in the regular season, 12 in the postseason - since they took him with the 18th pick of the 2008 draft out of Delaware.
As a rookie, he played poorly in a 23-14 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC championship game. He got back to that game last season, but the Ravens lost 23-20 to the Patriots.
But on the same field Sunday, Flacco completed 21 of 36 passes for 240 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. Brady went 29 for 54 for 320 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions.
"These games are tough to win and we've put ourselves in the position to win these games and, eventually, you're going to push through and play the way you need to," he said.
A week earlier in a 38-35 double-overtime win over the Broncos, he went 18 for 34 for 331 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. That beat Manning's 28 for 43 for 290 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions.
Flacco's passer ratings in this year's postseason games highlight his superiority - 125.6 to Luck's 59.8, 116.2 to Manning's 88.3 and 106.3 to Brady's 62.3.
"I've always been a Joe Flacco fan," Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said.
The Patriots led 13-7 at halftime but in a span of 10 minutes and one second Flacco threw touchdown passes of 5 yards to Dennis Pitta, and 3 and 11 yards to Boldin.
"They do a good job stopping the run and we knew we had to come out here in the second half and make some plays in the passing game," Flacco said.
He sure did.
After completing just 6 of 12 passes for 81 yards with no touchdowns before the break, he went 15 for 24 for 159 yards in the second half. He was 14 for 18 on the three touchdown drives and even scrambled once for 14 yards and a first down.
In three playoff games this season he's thrown eight touchdown passes and not a single interception.
"He's been great all year, especially in these playoffs," Pitta said. "He deserves this more than anyone."
Safety Ed Reed saw great potential in Flacco from the quarterback's rookie season.
"From the first snap (when) he went against our defense, I knew he was a smart guy," Reed said. "We blitzed him and he threw it straight to the sideline out of bounds because he knew we were coming. He's always been a leader (with) more than potential to lead us to where we're going right now."
That should have been clear when Flacco guided the Baltimore offense to three AFC championship games in his five seasons.
His opponents see it now that he's helped take the Ravens to the Super Bowl for the first time in his career.
"He is one of the elite quarterbacks," Patriots safety Steve Gregory said. "I know he gets a lot of flak for possibly not being that type of guy, but he is."
And now Flacco can look to pad his resume with his first Super Bowl championship.
"It's about who can get ready and who can become their best at the right time and hit the ground running," he said. "And that's what we're doing."
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