Joe Flacco may never silence all his critics, but he showed why the Ravens have so much faith in him: He is a winner who elevates his play when all the chips are on the table. Joe Flacco wins all the time, but somehow, in the court of popular pigskin opinion, he may never win. Flacco has won 61 games in his first five years in the NFL, including the playoffs, which is more than any other quarterback. Early in his career, he often played a secondary role in the outcome of those games. But all those national analysts who still think it is a smothering defense and a stout running game that is carrying the Ravens to all of these wins clearly aren't paying attention. No, Joe Flacco is not a perfect quarterback. He can be maddeningly inconsistent. His accuracy is spotty at times. He sometimes gets lost in the pocket. And while I am cool with his laid-back demeanor, some perceive that as a flaw. But it blows my mind that still today, few quarterbacks are scrutinized nationally more than Flacco. His critics were silenced Saturday -- and a few more will jump on the Flacco bandwagon, about 12 months too late. Simply put, Flacco balled out against the Denver Broncos. He dropped a bomb on them in the first quarter, lofting a deep throw over the head of cornerback Champ Bailey, a future Hall of Famer, to wide receiver Torrey Smith for a 59-yard touchdown. He connected with Smith again in the second quarter on a 32-yard touchdown. And with his season -- and the career of Ray Lewis -- on the line, Flacco stunned the Broncos by launching a prayer over the head of rookie safety Rahim Moore, who took a bad angle to the ball and then mistimed his leap, into the hands of Jacoby Jones, who ran it in for a game-tying 70-yard score. Flacco completed 18 of 34 passes for 331 yards and three touchdowns as the Ravens won in double overtime, 38-35. Flacco's only major mistake was fumbling a botched snap from center Matt Birk. Yes, I picked the Broncos to win this game, but I also predicted that Flacco would play well, and I have the blog posts and Tweets to show it. Flacco won me over last year with how he played in the AFC title game, which is why I didn't rip him when he played poorly at times this season (like the first time around against the Broncos). I don't know when the transformation occurred, but Flacco went from a young kid who underwhelmed in the playoffs to a grown man who elevates his play in the clutch. He couldn't care less about his individual numbers during the regular season, which is why he may never be viewed as one of those "elite" quarterbacks in the eyes of some analysts. But his postseason stats the past two years are eye-popping, and they are proof that the Ravens are winning because of Flacco and not in spite of him. In his past four playoff games, Joe Flacco has piled up 1,095 passing yards and nine touchdowns, while throwing just one interception. That's a big-boy playoff passer rating of 107.5, folks. When Jones dropped that pass on third down in the middle of the fourth quarter -- it wouldn't be a Ravens playoff game without a critical drop, would it? -- I couldn't help but think of the times that his wide-outs let him down in past years. Would Flacco be perceived differently if Anquan Boldin or T.J. Houshmandzadeh finished off plays in the loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers two years ago? And what about the drop by Lee Evans in last year's AFC championship game? Would Flacco have been mocked during his low points in the regular season -- one New York writer compared him to Kyle Boller in a Tweet to me back in October -- if Evans had caught that pass and Flacco had taken the Ravens to the Super Bowl? Anyway, it doesn't really matter now. Flacco once again has the Ravens in the AFC championship game. Since Flacco is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent this spring, I'm obligated to say that Flacco made himself a lot of money Saturday. And maybe he did. But the reality is that he isn't going anywhere and he never was going anywhere in the first place. The Ravens would be crazy to pull the plug on Flacco after five seasons, especially without giving him a chance to step out of the shadow of Cam Cameron's ego. The Ravens aren't crazy. They know what they have in Flacco -- a strong-armed quarterback who might just be on the verge of greatness -- and the real challenge all along has been finding a price that makes Flacco happy while still allowing the Ravens to build a contending team around him. No, Flacco can't do it all alone. But when he gets a little help from his friends, like he did Saturday night, Flacco can carry this team. Will he carry them back to the Super Bowl next weekend?
Baltimore Sun photo by Gene Sweeney Jr.