Five days out from a game the Ravens must win to make the playoffs and salvage a frustrating season, quarterback Joe Flacco said his sprained knee is sore after Sunday's loss but that it is in much better shape than it was a week ago.
"It feels better," Flacco said. "It felt really good on game day. A little sore [Monday] and [Tuesday], but it feels a lot better."
Playing with a bulky brace protecting the sprained medial collateral ligament in his left knee Sunday, Flacco completed 22 of his 38 attempts for 260 yards with two interceptions in the 41-7 loss to the New England Patriots. He scored the lone touchdown on a 1-yard sneak.
Two days later, Flacco was back on the practice field, wearing socks with Santas on them — a Christmas present from senior offensive assistant Craig Ver Steeg. Flacco's knee ached but he was in good spirits as the team prepares to play the AFC North champion Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday. He continued to shrug off questions about playing through his injury.
While Flacco maintained that his knee "didn't have anything to do with" his uneven performance and that it "actually felt good all game," head coach John Harbaugh on Monday admitted that the knee, which was sore and swollen in the days leading up to the game, affected the quarterback.
"He's definitely not 100 percent on that knee," Harbaugh said. "But to say how much or to what degree is just impossible to say. I think he fought through it, he gutted it out, he battled, and that's what you do this time of year. And that's what makes Joe who he is. He's a tough, hard-nosed competitor. So we appreciate that about him."
Flacco had just 52 passing yards in the first half Sunday as his knee clearly bothered him. He did not plant his left leg and drive the ball downfield on one underthrown pass toward wide receiver Jacoby Jones that was intercepted by Patriots cornerback Logan Ryan. Later in the first quarter, Flacco stumbled while trying to scramble. He later conceded that the knee brace might have caused the "really unathletic" fall.
Flacco, who spent more snaps than usual in the shotgun so he didn't have to drop back after the snap, said Tuesday that he will wear the brace against the Bengals.
"I really just want to make sure I can be as safe as I can [be] moving forward so nothing crazy happens," Flacco said. "I'm pretty comfortable with it. It's not ideal, but it is what it is. It's not that big of an issue."
Flacco looked more comfortable in the second half and got out of the pocket to make some throws on the move. He threw for 208 yards after halftime, but after the Ravens turned the ball over on downs and the Patriots scored a touchdown with 2:05 left to take a 27-7 lead, Flacco was replaced by backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor.
"It's really frustrating. You always want to go out there and put your best foot forward and we didn't really do that," said Flacco, who suffered the injury in the team's 18-16 win over the Detroit Lions on Dec. 16. "We scored late and got ourselves back within a chance to get 14 [points] on the board and if we had done that we could have put some real pressure on them. But we just couldn't connect and convert. It was disappointing."
Due in part to a lagging running game, the Ravens have relied on Flacco's right arm more than ever. He has already set new single-season highs with 332 completions and 564 attempts, and with 3,720 passing yards in 15 games, he needs just 98 against the Bengals to establish a new career high.
But with one game left, Vinny Testaverde's franchise record of 4,177 passing yards, set in the inaugural 1996 season, appears to be safe.
While Flacco had played well in recent weeks, especially late in games, to guide the Ravens to four straight wins, he has thrown just 18 touchdown passes, his fewest since his rookie season, and his 6.6 yards per attempt and 75.2 passer rating would be career lows.
Flacco has also thrown a career-high 19 interceptions, which does not sit well with the quarterback.
"I don't like to throw interceptions, but at this point, it is what it is. You can't do anything about the ones I've thrown," Flacco said. "I just have to go out there and play this game and make sure we get a win and don't worry about really anything else. You guys know it's never good to throw interceptions and put your team in bad positions, but if I dwell on that, I'm not going to give ourselves a good chance to win in this game right here."
The Ravens need a win in Cincinnati this weekend to have a chance to make the playoffs, but they also need either the Miami Dolphins or San Diego Chargers to lose to get in.
Flacco and the offense will face a tough test against a Bengals team that ranks sixth in scoring defense and fifth in yards allowed. But his Ravens teammates believe that Flacco, gimpy or not, will give the Ravens a chance to beat the Bengals.
"He's very tough. He's the leader of our offense, a leader of our team," fullback Vonta Leach said. "When a guy can go out there and perform with the injury that he has, it just speaks highly of him. We always have confidence in him no matter what that he is going to go out there and give everything that's he's got."