Flacco sets rookie mark with a veteran's poise

The Baltimore Sun

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - At some point, the Ravens' staff of skilled trainers is going to have to check out quarterback Joe Flacco. The trainers can wait a couple of more weeks, if they want. Maybe after that little game - the Super something? - in Tampa, Fla., on Feb. 1 perhaps. But there are some questions that need answering.

For starters, does Flacco have a pulse? His blood doesn't boil. His nerves don't shake. His confidence never wavers. Regardless of the circumstances, he seems as much machine as he is man, programmed to win regardless of the circumstances.

"Same as any other drive." That's how Flacco described the Ravens' late heroics, the way Flacco marched the offense downfield and put kicker Matt Stover in position to beat the NFL's winningest team, to sneak past perhaps the biggest obstacle separating the Ravens from the Super Bowl. Last night's thrilling 13-10 win over the Tennessee Titans means the Ravens are now just one victory away from the championship game. And it left few doubts that Flacco has what it takes to be effective for a long time to come.

Yet he said it was like any other drive, and he acted like it was like any other game. The guy is great under pressure, but he has no idea what he's talking about. It wasn't any other game - not for the Ravens, and especially not for Flacco.

"You read his eyes, and there is nothing to read," tight end Todd Heap said. "You are looking at him and you're thinking, 'Does anything faze this guy?' "

The win was the Ravens' biggest since winning the Super Bowl eight years ago in Tampa. And the way he led his team down the field in the fourth quarter wasn't like any rookie we've seen before. We've watched Flacco grow and mature at an amazing rate these past several weeks.

The past two weeks, the Ravens have faced veteran signal-callers Chad Pennington and Kerry Collins. Yet when it mattered most, it was Flacco who had the steely nerves. It was Flacco who looked like he was born to play football in January.

In fact, late in yesterday's game, he looked exactly like the kind of quarterback who could lead his team into the Super Bowl. The way the ball continually bounced in the Ravens' favor yesterday, it's time for players and fans alike to start preparing for this reality.

As the fourth quarter faded, Flacco watched Tennessee kick a field goal to tie the game at 10. He didn't dread what came next. The possibility of failure? Never even crossed his mind.

"You can see you're going to get a chance," he said, "and that's all that you can ask for."

The Ravens offense started at its own 24-yard line. Flacco had just one timeout at his disposal. His offense had sputtered all day, but it didn't seem to matter. They ran two short running plays before Flacco gathered his offense. Third-and-two. The Ravens had failed on their previous seven third-down tries.

Out of shotgun formation, the entire stadium of noisy Titans fans watched the play clock hit zero. The officials missed it, though, and Flacco took the ball and dropped back. Heap burst off the line and sprinted downfield. The chute was narrow, and Flacco's aim was high.

The ball hung in the air. The Ravens' hopes hung in the balance. It might not have been the difference in winning or losing, but it was the difference in winning and playing overtime. Heap pulled it down, a 23-yard gain. It was his only catch of the day, and it put the Ravens at Tennessee's 45-yard line with 2 1/2 minutes to play. Three plays later, Willis McGahee put the Ravens in field-goal position. And four plays later, Stover was trotting onto the field, lining up a 43-yard attempt that felt like a mere technicality.

With the wind at Stover's back, several Ravens players didn't even bother watching. "I've seen Stover make plenty of those kicks," wide receiver Derrick Mason said.

If there were a game the Ravens could lose, it seemed to be yesterday's. But every bounce went their way. Sam Koch planted his punts in the ground. Calls went their way. So did the wind. Titans running back Chris Johnson ran for 72 yards in the first half but hurt his ankle and missed the second. The Ravens' defense missed tackles all day, and the offense struggled to move the ball. But none of it seemed to matter. Good teams find a way to win games like this. Just as good players somehow make clutch plays when they're most needed.

None of the final offensive numbers is pretty, but don't think for a second that the Ravens' next foe - the winner of today's Chargers-Steelers matchup - will spend more than a few seconds studying the stats. It's the way the Ravens are winning that has positioned them for a return trip to the Super Bowl.

The defense has forced eight turnovers in two playoff games, and the rookie quarterback has yet to throw a postseason interception. Last night, Flacco became the first rookie to win two playoff games. Think about that. Think about all the great passers that came before him. There were better throwers, sure. There were smarter men in the huddle and faster men in the pocket. Flacco can improve in those areas. What he has shown these past two weeks, though, is that he can find a way to win - and that might be the most important attribute for a quarterback to have in the postseason.

"He's going to be a good one," Titans defensive tackle Tony Brown conceded.

Flacco's already a good one. The next few weeks might very well show just how good Flacco is - and how great the Ravens might really be.

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