xml:space="preserve">

OWINGS MILLS - The pass was dropped perfectly into Anquan Boldin's waiting arms, hitting the wide receiver in stride just as he crossed the Steelers' goal line.

The throw was a thing of beauty, a high tight spiral that found Boldin just beyond the outstretched right arm of Pittsburgh cornerback Cortez Allen.

The 28-yard touchdown was a rare bright spot for Joe Flacco and the Ravens' passing game amid Sunday's 23-20 loss to the Steelers, a game that served as a continuation of what's been an up and down season for Baltimore's fifth-year quarterback.

There's been flashes of brilliance - the 382 yards and three touchdowns against the Patriots in Week 3, the 341 yards and three scores versus the Raiders in Week 10 and the big second half and overtime during Baltimore's dramatic overtime win against the Chargers in Week 12.

But there's been a concerning abundance of low points for Flacco as well, as recently as his performance during Sunday's loss to the Steelers.

"He's had some really good moments," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of Flacco. "Like any quarterback, you look around the league, and that's pretty much what you get. There are a few guys playing at a Hall of Fame level week-in and week-out. We're striving for that."

But this was supposed to be the year that Flacco took that proverbial next step, establishing himself as one of the league's "elite" signal callers as Baltimore transitioned to more of an up-tempo offense centered around Flacco and its passing game.

Flacco's play during training camp and the preseason did nothing to dispel that notion. Neither did his showing during the Ravens' season-opening romp of the Bengals, as Flacco picked apart Cincinnati's defense for 299 yards and two touchdowns in leading Baltimore to an impressive 44-13 victory.

But Flacco struggled during the Ravens' loss at Philadelphia a week later, one of six games this year that Flacco has finished with a total QBR of 40.2 or less.

ESPN's total QBR is a comprehensive grading system that rates the play of quarterbacks on a scale from 0-100. A rating of 50 is considered average.

Flacco's had three games that he's finished with a total QBR of 91.6 or better, three of the better marks for any AFC quarterback this season, but he's also had three games that he finished with a total QBR of 24.6 or less, including Sunday's loss to Pittsburgh.

Flacco's been held to one touchdown pass or less in eight of Baltimore's last nine games and has been limited to 188 yards or less in five of the Ravens' last eight games.

Flacco has completed just 57 percent of his passes in Baltimore's eight games since the beginning of October.

"Joe's playing good football," Harbaugh said. "He's playing winning football, but he knows he can get better. All of our guys can get better, and Joe is fighting and working to be the best player he can be."

To be fair, Flacco's far from the only quarterback that's been plagued by inconsistency this season.

Matt Ryan tossed five interceptions three weeks ago, Drew Brees had five interceptions last week, Tony Romo's had two games this year that he finished with four interceptions or more and even Eli Manning went three straight games without a scoring pass during the middle part of the season.

Last year's MVP, Aaron Rodgers, has even struggled at times, especially during the Packers' 38-10 loss to the Giants two weeks ago.

"In Joe's case, it's about just consistently doing the things that are needed for his team to win, and that has to be defined by the team," said former Redskins quarterback and current NFL analyst Joe Theismann.

But Theismann acknowledged that Flacco's inconsistency has been frustrating to watch.

Flacco has a total QBR of just 50.8 this season, which is ranked 18th out of NFL quarterbacks and represents his lowest total since his rookie season in 2008.

"It is frustrating because when I look at a young man that's starting to progress and then all of a sudden you don't see it as prevalently, it becomes frustrating for me having played the position and for me as a fan of Joe Flacco's," Theismann said. "It's the same thing with Tony Romo. I look at Joe and I look at Tony and I say, 'You should be better than you are right now.'

"But every day you can better, and that's what you want to see out of Joe Flacco."

Flacco has what appears to be a favorable matchup this week against the Redskins - Washington's defense is ranked second-worst in the NFL against the pass - but faces the Broncos sixth-ranked pass defense the week after and a much improved Bengals pass defense in the Ravens' regular season finale two weeks later.

Baltimore faces the Giants in Week 16, a team with a potent pass rush but a secondary that has been exploited at times this year.

The Ravens are 9-3 and lead the AFC North by two games with four weeks remaining in the season.

They trail the Patriots (9-3) by one game for the No. 2 spot in the AFC as a result of New England having a better record within the conference, but hold a narrow lead on the Broncos (9-3) for the No. 3 spot based on the same tiebreaker.

New England is 8-1 in the AFC, Baltimore is 7-2 and Denver is 6-2.

The top two teams in the conference receive a first round bye in the playoffs and play at home during the divisional round of the postseason.

"We're going to need [Joe] to be at his best now," Harbaugh said. "This is the time when all of our guys need to step up and play their best."

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement