Patriots 23, Ravens 20

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.

Baltimore Sun photo by Gene Sweeney Jr.
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