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News Opinion Editorial

For Joe Flacco, a game of r-e-s-p-e-c-t

Is life great or what?

For Baltimore Ravens fans — and we're guessing that this newspaper's readership is pretty much birds of a feather in this regard — the last two weeks have been a delight. To beat the Indianapolis Colts in a home playoff game and then the highly-touted Denver Broncos in the mile-high city in a nail-biting double-overtime contest the following week has not only been a thrill ride, but it has united this city — or at least diverted its collective attention from the less easily-resolved challenges of the day — in the way that only popular sporting events can.

"Team of destiny" is how a lot of the nation's sportswriters have taken to describing the Ravens after their upset victory over Peyton Manning and the Broncos. And much of the country is turning its attention to Ray Lewis as the all-universe linebacker, the undisputed leader of the franchise, winds up a distinguished NFL career. There is also talk of "redemption" as the Ravens will face in the AFC Championship Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, the team they came within a whisker (a stripped ball, a botched field goal) of defeating in the playoffs last year. These are the narratives, the all-important story lines, that are laced throughout the coverage (merely dryly recounting the events on the field having long ago fallen out of favor).

But to our tastes, the most intriguing element of the game involves none of the above. Our eyes will inevitably turn to one man, the player on whom the Ravens' fortunes are most likely to rise or fall. By most measures of his trade, he has had an extraordinary season and career (although he has been a pro for just five seasons). The Broncos victory was as much about his clutch performance as anyone's.

So why do so many Baltimoreans still struggle with their feelings about Joe Flacco? The easy answer, of course, is that until a quarterback leads his team to a Super Bowl there are inevitably feelings of ambivalence. Success is everything in the National Football League, and the greats — the Joe Montanas, the John Elways and yes, the Tom Bradys — are judged by their Super Bowl rings, of which the 28-year-old Mr. Flacco has none.

And yes, sometimes he plays poorly. But we have yet to meet a quarterback who does not, at least occasionally, struggle at this most-demanding position. Yet just by sheer statistics — victories in the regular season and playoffs, a career 60-percent completion rate and favorable touchdown-to-interception ratio — he is among the top in the game. Nevertheless, more than once this season, he has been asked by reporters: Are you among the game's elite? He says yes. So do his teammates. The nattering classes of sports talk radio and Internet blather have their doubts, however, and so the matter seems unresolved.

Perhaps it is because he is measured against future Hall of Fame quarterbacks named Tom and Peyton who have set a high standard in this era of wide-open passing in the NFL. Maybe Baltimore is reluctant to give its heart to any golden armed man not named Johnny Unitas. Or maybe it's because the Ravens are still recalled by many as a team driven by defense — even as it's evolved into a team that now rises or falls on how many points its high-octane offense, Mr. Flacco included, can muster on any given Sunday.

This much is certain: the Ravens are regarded by oddsmakers as underdogs to the Patriots this Sunday, and much of that has to do with a pronounced (perhaps even excessive) respect for that team's quarterback and his ability. If the Ravens are to advance, and their own quarterback wishes to prove to the world, his fans included, that he is of the same caliber as his counterpart, this is the moment to shine.

And here's how he should feel about that — great. Few of us get such an opportunity, and he has proven himself before. Just last Saturday, in fact. His elite quarterback rating of 120 over the last two games (and most notably against the well-regarded Broncos pass defense) suggests he and his receivers are more than up to the task. Say it's so, Joe. The Super Bowl beckons just beyond the chilly confines of Gillette Stadium and with it, the not-so-conditional love of Ravens fans everywhere — and maybe a nice fat, new contract, too.

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