The chaotic final moments of Joe Flacco's impressive duel with New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady had barely unfolded when expectations for the Ravens quarterback began skyrocketing.
Although the Ravens lost their grip on a Super Bowl berth when wide receiver Lee Evans failed to secure a pass in the end zone and kicker Billy Cundiff flubbed a chip shot field-goal attempt, Flacco had nearly toppled the Patriots. After his commanding performance, much more was expected from Flacco.
Yet that display of potential during the Ravens' loss in last year's AFC championship game hasn't translated into a breakthrough season for Flacco. It has been an erratic fifth NFL season for him, defined by turnover issues, chronic inaccuracy on deep throws and the late-season firing of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron.
Heading into Sunday's wild-card round game against the Indianapolis Colts, the AFC North champions are hoping Flacco recaptures his form from last January at Gillette Stadium.
"I thought Joe showed a lot of poise and did a lot of great things battling eye to eye with Tom Brady," Ravens tight end Ed Dickson said. "Not many guys can do that, and it's in him to do that. Joe has a look in his eye that shows me he's ready for this, and he knows we have his back. I think he's ready to be among the greats. He knows to be among the greats, he has to win a title."
In order for that to happen, though, the Ravens will need Flacco to significantly raise his game in the postseason.
Against the Patriots, Flacco completed 22 of 36 passes for a playoff career-high 306 yards and a 95.4 passer rating. It was a game where he stood tall in the pocket, unbothered by hard hits from powerful New England defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, and delivered the football with authority.
While the Ravens would like to see Flacco show that kind of pocket presence and decisiveness again, the quarterback downplayed the notion that he needs to duplicate his success against the Patriots.
"You don't try to recapture anything," Flacco said. "That was last year. It was a game against an entirely different team. I think we're a different team. I think we're really excited about where we are headed. I'm just excited to get out there on Sunday."
Following a regular season in which the Ravens' all-time leading passer finished with a career-high 3,817 yards, 22 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and an 87.7 quarterback rating, Flacco has another opportunity to prove himself when the playoffs begin this weekend.
"Joe really needs to play well for them to win," said former NFL quarterback Rich Gannon, a CBS analyst. "They've got a bit of an identity crisis. When you watch Joe and Torrey Smith, their longball hitter, they miss a lot of throws. There are a lot of overthrows. You get the sense they're not on the same page as far as timing.
"Joe has the ability to get hot. He's big, strong and tough. He's a Top 5 talent in terms of arm strength and has a lot of mobility. Yet something's not right with this team. Something's amiss. You hope they find it and get hot, but confidence and momentum is the furthest thing from the Ravens right now."
Flacco was sacked 35 times this season and lost one fumble per game during a three-game losing streak to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Washington Redskins and Denver Broncos in December.
Some of the blame falls on lapses in blocking, and some on Flacco for holding the football too long.
"They're going to have to throw the football and make some plays," NFL Films analyst Greg Cosell said. "I think the nature of their offense doesn't allow Joe to improve on his weaknesses. I think they ask him to be a deep drop passer, and you could argue that one of his main issues is he doesn't have great pocket presence. The longer he's in the pocket, the less efficient he becomes.
"The nature of their offense consistently demands him to be in the pocket for a long amount of time. It doesn't look like they get him a lot of easy completions. There are great throws and great catches mixed in, but those are individual plays, not scheme plays. I think it's tough to live like that consistently."
In Jim Caldwell's second game as offensive coordinator after Cameron's dismissal, the Ravens struck a better balance between the run and the pass.
Flacco completed 25 of 36 passes for 309 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions for a 114.2 quarterback rating, while the Ravens rushed for a season-high 224 yards in the 33-14 win over the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants in Week 16.
"I don't think Joe needs to do anything spectacular, just play the way he played against New York," said Anquan Boldin, the Ravens' leading receiver this season with 65 catches for 921 yards. "Come out and play that way and we'll be fine."
Playing with a quicker pace and moving his feet well, Flacco got the ball out of his hands and looked more comfortable than he had in weeks. Against the Giants, he wasn't sacked and was only hit twice.
"For Joe to be decisive with the football is the key to his success," former NFL quarterback Joe Theismann said. "Joe has been through the adjustment from Cam being gone to a little bit of a different philosophy with Caldwell. Same plays, but the approach is different. It's about creating rhythm and timing and building confidence for Joe."
Caldwell sees an eagerness to improve from Flacco, who has maintained a stoic personality ever since his arrival in Baltimore in 2008 as a first-round draft pick from Delaware.
"He's steadily improving," Caldwell said. "Great attitude, that's the thing I love about this guy. Oftentimes, I think people kind of misunderstand him. They don't understand how much fire he has in him, but he has real desire."
What Flacco's not thinking about is his unresolved contract situation.
After Flacco declined the Ravens' lucrative offer in August that would have paid him as one of the NFL's highest compensated quarterbacks when talks hit an impasse, discussions were tabled until after the season. Barring a breakthrough, though, Flacco could wind up as the Ravens' franchise player during the offseason.
"I don't really look at it that way," Flacco said when asked if he thought he had hurt or helped his contract status with his play this season. "I go out there, and I play football. You try to lead thisteam to victories. That's what we are trying to do that right now.
"That's all I'm concerned about is making a playoff run and making the Super Bowl. All that other stuff will take care of itself. Whatever happens, happens. It's not really that big of a deal at the end of the day."
From Flacco's perspective, the Ravens have discovered a good place as an offense and he's optimistic about the immediate future.
Ranked 16th in the NFL in total offense, 11th in rushing, 15th in passing and 10th in scoring with an average of 24.9 points per contest, the Ravens have plenty of options on offense.
They're headlined by Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice and have speed outside with Smith.
"I think it's still a work in progress," Flacco said of the offense. "I think the biggest things are going out there and working with speed and being consistent and getting everybody around us to get going and get up to that level that we need to win the Super Bowl.
"I think that's going to show over the next four weeks, five weeks. I think we're all going to be playing at that level. That's the job of the quarterback. It's not only to go out there and put points on the board for your team, but it's getting everybody going and excited about every single down. I think we are at that point."
In nine career playoff games, Flacco has a 5-4 record and has completed 54.3 percent of his throws for 1,532 yards, eight touchdowns and eight interceptions for a 70.4 quarterback rating.
That ordinary track record in the postseason hasn't eroded his teammates' confidence in him.
"Joe plays tough, he's a smart quarterback and he's resilient," Pro Bowl offensive guard Marshal Yanda said. "He's our leader out there. We'll be riding him for sure."