In last night's 10-9 loss to the Atlanta Falcons, Flacco delivered a convincing argument why he should be the Ravens' season-opening starter. The 18th overall pick in this year's draft completed eight of 13 passes for 72 yards and showed increasing confidence in directing the offense.
Looking ahead to the Sept. 7 opener against the Cincinnati Bengals, Harbaugh could have a difficult time keeping the starting job away from Flacco, who was essentially ruled out of the quarterback battle a couple of weeks ago.
"I think Joe has made the case that he can go back there and compete for us as the opening-day starter," Harbaugh said. "Whether that's the best thing or where we're at, we'll have to see in the next three, four or five days. He's acquitted himself very well."
"Even if we planned to name a starter, we couldn't right now," Harbaugh said. "We'll find out more about Kyle in the next couple of days. We don't know about Troy. We'll see what the next few days bring."
Smith is receiving intravenous fluids for a tonsil infection at Union Memorial Hospital and is expected to remain there for at least two days, a team spokesman said. Being sidelined for more than a week could hurt Smith's chances of winning the job.
"It certainly wasn't our ideal to have a quarterback that very well could have been our starter miss all that time," Harbaugh said. "So we'll have to factor that into the equation as we go forward. By the same token, he's had a lot of reps. He knows our offense."
There is an equal amount of uncertainty with Boller. A team spokesman said Boller isn't scheduled for surgery, but the Ravens aren't revealing much else.
"We know that we have all the information on his shoulder and he is in the process of treating it with certain things," Harbaugh said. "We'll know by the weekend whether he can throw it and be ready to go in a week."
Asked whether Boller tore anything in his shoulder, Harbaugh said: "The great thing about it is I don't think I have to give out that information at this time. So, we'll get to you at another time."
With the starting offense nearly intact for the first time this preseason - tight end Todd Heap and left tackle Jared Gaither returned - Flacco led the Ravens to 115 yards of total offense and one scoring drive in just more than one quarter of work.
"It was good to get in there and work with all of those guys," Flacco said. "We moved the ball a little bit and were able to get the confidence of the offense up."
His best series was his last, when he started the drive with a 12-yard slant to Mark Clayton and a 22-yard throw to Demetrius Williams over the middle. He nearly had a touchdown on a third-down fade pass, but his throw went just beyond the outstretched hands of Williams, who appeared to get tripped up in the end zone.
The Ravens settled for a 25-yard field goal by Matt Stover that put them ahead 3-0 with 12:48 left in the second quarter and wrapped up the night for Flacco.
"Joe played well," Harbaugh said. "He was in control, he played faster and he was mostly on target. He keeps making progress."
Flacco's fast rise in the quarterback race is surprising considering it appeared to be Smith's job to lose six days ago.
But Smith was a late scratch from the Ravens' third preseason game because of swollen tonsils. Even though the 2006 Heisman Trophy winner didn't practice all week, he seemed as if he was close to returning before his fever returned yesterday morning.
Without Smith, the Ravens had to turn to Flacco again because Boller is still suffering from a serious shoulder injury. It is unknown how long Boller will be sidelined.
Though Flacco was far from smooth, he was more polished than Ryan, the first quarterback taken in this year's draft. Ryan, who was recently named the Falcons' starting quarterback, was 2-for-7 for 17 yards.
The Ravens' first-team defense manhandled the Falcons in one quarter, holding them to 36 yards and one first down. This effort was more impressive considering the defense was without linebacker Ray Lewis, safety Ed Reed, cornerbacks Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle, and nose tackle Kelly Gregg.
"If we get everybody back healthy, we have a chance to do some great things this year," said defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, who was playing in his first game after being sidelined with a knee injury.
After Flacco left the game, the Ravens handed the ball to Casey Bramlet, who took a red-eye flight from San Diego to Baltimore on Wednesday night and had a makeshift walk-through with the team in the hotel ballroom yesterday morning.
On his third series, Bramlet threw a 25-yard pass to running back Allen Patrick, which set up Stover's 31-yard field goal to increase the Ravens' lead to 6-0 in the second quarter.
The Falcons answered with a 20-yard touchdown pass from D.J. Shockley to Brian Finneran, putting Atlanta ahead 7-6 late in the second quarter. The Ravens never regained the lead.
"We were pleased early," defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. "Our second group was disappointing at the end of the second quarter. You have to earn a Ravens helmet. Some of those guys will make our roster decisions easier."
The Ravens, who will make their last major cutdown tomorrow, finished the preseason 1-3 in Harbaugh's first season as coach.
Season opener: Bengals @Ravens, Sept. 7, 1 p.m.
TV: Ch. 13
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