1.  Joe Flacco might not be playing in the Super Bowl this year, but he'll get to one eventually. And he'll do it wearing a Ravens uniform. After watching him play four years of football, and seeing him both at his best, and at his worst, I feel totally comfortable saying that. He may not be the perfect quarterback, but he's your quarterback, Baltimore.

I've been saying this for at least half the season, and it's worth bringing up one last time as we bring this year to a close. We need to stop arguing over whether or not Flacco is "elite," because the use of that word has become one of the dumbest phrases you can introduce into any NFL discussion. In short, it misses the point.

Where does Flacco rank among the quarterbacks in the league? Frankly, who cares? What a pointless debate it has become, serving no purpose beyond filling up the airwaves of talk radio or taking up bandwidth on message boards. This isn't fantasy football. "Ranking" quarterbacks is nonsensical. What really matters is how you play on any given Sunday.

Flacco showed the world this season he can win a lot of different ways, and I think he's only going to improve going forward. He doesn't have a mental block in big games, and Sunday should end that debate as well. To be fair, sometimes it does take him a quarter to get going, but as soon as he hits one big throw, he tends to relax, and things start to click. He did enough to win Sunday's game against the Patriots, and I'm not just talking about the throw he made to Lee Evans in the back of the end zone that will likely become a part of Charm City infamy. Flacco also made some fearless throws on third down, plays where an incomplete pass might have spelled doom for Baltimore's chances.

It was obviously kind of a strange week for Flacco. He really didn't play as poorly as people nationally were convinced he played against Houston. I'm not sure why it was so hard to watch that game and see dropped passes, poor protection, and ignore all of it and focus solely on the idea that "Joe Flacco doesn't complete enough passes." This incorrect perception bugged me so much, I penned a lengthy "letter" to Joe sticking up for him, because at that point, sticking up for him was actually a contrarian argument. As soon as Ed Reed gave an interview that was as ill-conceived as any of his post-interception laterals, it was like watching a school of hungry sharks circle a wounded baby seal. I actually think there was some truth to what Reed said, and if you listened to the entire interview, it was far more broad and nuanced than sites like ProFootballTalk cared to make it out to be, but Reed's comments essentially allowed people to declare open season on Flacco.

If you're a football fan and you didn't trust Flacco, if something about his play bugged you -- maybe his laconic personality, his awkward gait, or his poor pocket presence -- why bother couching it anymore? It was obvious much of the country was sneering with glee. Even his own teammates are dogging him!

I had a sneaking suspicion, though, that Reed's comments and the firestorm of criticism they fueled, might actually work in the Ravens' favor against the Patriots. It's really hard to make definitive statements about Flacco, because he regularly defies good ones and bad ones, so I certainly wasn't going to predict he'd have (arguably) the best game of his career. But I do think Flacco tends to play his best football when people doubt him, or poke him with a stick. I think his personality masks what a fiery competitor he really is. I'm sure a handful of people will try to dismiss this performance by claiming it came against a porous New England defense, but if that's what you truly believe, you weren't watching the same game I was watching. The Patriots defense came to play Sunday. They hit hard, they dominated the line of scrimmage, and they bottled up Ray Rice. The Ravens only chance to win the game was to have Flacco make plays.

The Ravens obviously have a big decision to make with regards to Cam Cameron's future. Cameron's contract is up, and while we have no idea what Steve Bisciotti thinks, fans are obviously frustrated with the inconsistency of the offense. If the Ravens do decide to go a different direction, I don't think it would be wise to bring in a coordinator who would coddle Flacco. I think he needs someone who is going to continue to push him, and ride him, but also someone with a little more creative approach to calling combination routes. Flacco deserves a new contract, and I'm certain he'll eventually get one from the Ravens. But how big that contract will be might depend on what happens in 2012, when he's in the final year of his rookie deal. Does he deserve Ryan Fitzpatrick money? Matt Ryan money? Ben Roethlisberger money?

Every Ravens fan likely feels heartbroken today, and on one level, that's a good thing. In sports, if we didn't care so much, and if it didn't hurt so much when your team falls inches short, the victories wouldn't provide such an adrenaline rush. There is a tribalism aspect of football that I think makes it the greatest game in the world. It's obnoxious to compare it to war, but every week feels like the build-up to an epic clash. There is civic pride involved, and a shared sense of community. That's why a loss like this feels so devastating, even though it's just a game. But take heart, Baltimore. Your quarterback stood tall on Sunday, and proved with his play -- and with the way he handled the loss -- that this will soon become his team to lead, and he'll lead it for the next decade. It's not a role he felt comfortable with four years ago, but he's clearly growing into it. And one day, I predict you'll see him on the doorstep of the Super Bowl again, and when that happens, I bet it doesn't slip away.

2. The Ravens have an agonizing decision to make about Billy Cundiff going forward.

Everyone from John Harbaugh to Terrell Suggs handled questions about Cundiff's inexplicable 32-yard miss with class on Sunday. It was pretty admirable, especially when you compare it to the way the Jets imploded and began pointing fingers when their season ended. (Just more evidence that, even if you're not Harbaugh's biggest fan, you have to concede what a better choice he was to lead this organization than Rex Ryan. And I say that as someone who really likes Rex Ryan.) But as classy as the Ravens were, and as impressive as it was to see Cundiff stand up and field every question like a man instead of hiding in the training room, the decision of whether or not he can be your kicker next season is going to be extremely difficult.

I really like and admire Cundiff as a person, I think the second act of his career is one of the best stories in the NFL, but if I'm objective about the situation, I don't see how you can bring him back and just assume this will make him stronger, and that he'll grow from this. That would make for a great story, but the harsh reality of sports suggests this could linger for a long time. Even though Cundiff still has a strong leg, he didn't give the Ravens a lot of reason to trust him on field goals of 50 yards or more this year. That's ultimately why they went for it on 4th down in fourth quarter instead of electing to let him try a 51-yard field goal. So he can't kick long field goals anymore, and his kickoffs aren't quite as booming as they once were. How do you now trust him with a game on the line? What happens the next time he misses, and fans are immediately reminded of what happened in Foxborough? Kicking is 10 percent physical and 90 percent mental. Cundiff is a tough guy, but that was the kind of miss that has broken more accomplished kickers. When he went through his midseason slump, I said in this column the idea the Ravens should release him was "laughable." The readers who were advocating for Cundiff's release and accusing me of being blind to the realities certainly got the last laugh.

I actually think the Ravens coaching staff -- and ultimately this is on Harbaugh -- made a real error in not calling a timeout before his field goal attempt, because it was obvious Cundiff had to rush just a bit to get on the field. He was down the sideline, kicking into a net, a long jog from the offense when Flacco's pass to Dennis Pitta was broken up, and it seemed like the field goal unit was a little late getting set up. Sam Koch even admitted in the locker room that things felt a little rushed. But ultimately, the kicker has to make that kick 100 times out of 100. Cundiff looked understandably crushed during his postgame interview, but he didn't shy away from a single question. When asked if he felt like he needed to say something to his teammates, Cundiff pointed out how empty his words would sound.

"To be honest with you, I don't think they want to hear an apology," he said. "They laid it out there, and I laid it out there. Sometimes it's not good enough. When you play long enough, you're going to have games where things just don't go your way. That's the reason you play this game. You want to lay it all out there. You don't get this kind of adrenaline rush sitting behind a desk, with this kind of pressure. It's what comes with the territory."

But if the pressure consumes you in a big moment, does it consume you forever? That's what Ozzie Newsome and John Harbaugh have to ask themselves.

3. Haloti Ngata got pushed around so much on Sunday, I almost hope we find out on Monday that he's been playing through injuries the second half of the year. I think his effort was still decent, but in terms of impact plays, he's pretty much been M.I.A. for about six weeks.

I really thought at the beginning of the year that Ngata was going to be in a neck-and-neck race all season for Defensive Player of the Year with Terrell Suggs. He absolutely tormented Pittsburgh in the season opener, and he looked so quick and strong, it was actually a little scary to imagine offenses trying find ways to shut him down. The Ravens' decision to sign Ngata to a five-year, $61 million contract seemed like a total no-brainer.

But watching Vince Wilfork bulldoze his way into the Ravens' backfield time and time again on Sunday made you realize: Why hasn't Ngata been doing that lately? What's going on here? Why isn't he collapsing the pocket with what defensive coaches refer to as "A-gap pressure" and why hasn't he been knifing through creases to blow up plays and wreak havoc?

He hasn't been on the official injury report since the week of the Chargers game, when he was listed as questionable with a back injury. But he clearly didn't have the same power in his legs to bull rush people the way he did at the beginning of the year.

Suggs picked a bad time to fall into a slump as well, especially when you consider how badly the Ravens needed him down the stretch. He had just one sack the final five games of the year. It's hard to put too much blame on any member of the Ravens defense because they hammered the Patriots all afternoon. They "rattled" Brady, to be perfectly honest, or at least as much as he can be rattled. How many pundits did you see predict the Patriots would hang 35 points (or more) on Baltimore's defense? A ton, but it simply didn't happen.

Still, the weekly obsession over the play of Ray Lewis and Ed Reed allowed the team's two most talented (and highest paid) defenders, Ngata and Suggs, to fly under the radar. They needed to play a lot better down the stretch.

4. It's time to give serious thought to drafting a linebacker in the first round.

We knew all week that the Patriots were going to try to create mismatches with their hurry-up offense, and that there was a good chance they'd find a weak link in the Ravens defense and exploit it. There was a real assumption it was going to be Bernard Pollard, but it actually turned out to be Dannell Ellerbe. He was burned repeatedly by Aaron Hernandez. The Ravens tried to hide him in different coverages, but it was just too difficult to give him help on every play.

Ray Lewis said after the game he was absolutely planning to return next year, and that's a good thing. He still has some football left in him. I thought Lewis was totally ineffective as a blitzer on Sunday, but he played surprisingly well in pass coverage. He cut off angles, helped confuse Brady early, and he punished people when they did catch the ball in front of him. But he can't outrun or out-think the calender forever. What happens if he misses time next year with injuries?

It's time to get serious about finding a young and talented linebacker who can play alongside Lewis for a season (or two) and then take over when he does hang up his cleats. Jameel McClain has developed into a solid starter, but the Ravens need better athletes at that position. Undrafted free agents like Ellerbe and McClain make for a great story, but there is a reason Ray Lewis was drafted in the first round. I'm sure the Ravens will claim they're going to stick with their philosophy of "Best Player Available." But internally, the discussion needs to take place. When do you use a high draft pick to address that position? Because they haven't in years.

Defense is obviously still important in the playoffs, but teams are throwing the ball more and more in the regular season, and linebackers who can get back in coverage are more important than they've ever been. Next year, the Ravens will have to face Ben Roethlisberger twice, Andy Dalton twice, and also play against Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, Mike Vick, Eli Manning, Tony Romo, and Matt Schaub. Those are a lot of bullets to dodge.

5. Ed Reed truly is a strange, but fascinating enigma.

I really look forward to the day Reed goes into the Hall of Fame, because his speech in Canton has the potential to be one of the strangest moments in the history of sports speeches. He might burst into tears, start doing impressions, or start spouting out song lyrics that summarize how he's feeling. I say this last one because that's precisely what he did in the locker room on Sunday, declining to answer questions from the media, and instead choosing to belt out lyrics to Teddy Pendergrass' "Love TKO." I can't decide if the lyrics were Reed's cryptic attempt to comment on the game, or if he had his iPod on shuffle and that song just happened to appear. To be honest, one is just as likely as the other. The lyrics are poignant if you buy into the idea he was trying to say something deeper, but you can read what he was singing and decide for yourself.

Lookin' back over my years
I guessed, I've shed some tears
Told myself time and time again
This time I'm gonna win

But another fight, things ain't right
I'm losin' again
Takes a fool to lose twice
And start all over again


What's all the more fascinating is Reed played what I think was his best game of the season against the Patriots. He was all over the field, swatting down passes, taking away the deep threat, wrapping up receivers and making real tackles for once. The play he made on third down late in the game to force a New England punt was textbook Ed Reed. He broke on the ball almost before the receiver did.

I honestly have no idea if Reed is going to retire. And I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say the Ravens probably have no idea either. Reed could threaten to retire, then turn around 12 hours later and insist he needs a new contract. No one on the Ravens can tell him what to do, or predict what he's going to do. The team had no idea he was off giving a radio interview on Tuesday when it happened. Reed speaks with the media so sporadically, the Ravens' PR staff only asks him do it a handful of times during the year, because he'll just refuse. So to say the organization felt blindsided by the interview would be completely accurate. But what can you do? Reed is an extremely intelligent guy, but he's also mercurial. He marches to the beat of his own Second Line, to steal a New Orleans reference. And no player in the locker room is as universally revered as Reed is. People assume it's Ray Lewis, but that's not accurate. From the practice squad rookies to the 12-year vets, it doesn't matter if they're black, white or Asian, Reed tries to embrace them. It's a strange dynamic, but it also speaks to Reed's weird magnetism.

In a way, Reed's personality and play is an accurate way to describe this year's team. Talented but erratic, frustrating but dynamic, and now facing a lot of tough questions about the uncertain future.


Thanks for another fun season writing this column, folks. Hard to believe that game literally came down to Lee Evans needing to get a heel or a toe on the ground a few tenths of a second sooner, and everything would be different. But that's why sports are so riveting.

kevin.vanvalkenburg@baltsun.com

twitter.com/kvanvalkenburg