Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco proved he can put a team in position to go to the Super Bowl in last season's AFC Championship Game. He showed he could command a no-huddle offense with a Peyton Manning-esque flair in the season-opening rout of the Bengals.
His next challenge has always been his greatest -- the encore. There's never been any doubt whether Flacco can play like an elite NFL quarterback. The question has been whether he can play like one consistently.
Last season, Flacco opened the season with three touchdowns against Pittsburgh. The next week, he completed less than half of his passes at Tennessee. A few weeks later, Flacco put up 389 yards passing and three touchdowns at St. Louis. The next week, he managed to complete 10 passes against the Jets. For every spectacular performance, there's been one that makes you scratch your head.
This year has a different feel for Flacco, and it goes beyond any motivation of playing for a contract. Monday's season opener was Flacco's best game, from start to finish, in his four-plus years in the NFL. He was accurate on his deep passes. He looked off defenders to free up his receivers. For a quarterback who didn't appear to have the ability to audible a couple years ago, Flacco was making all the right calls in Baltimore's new no-huddle attack. He's won a lot of games, including big ones in the playoffs, but he has never looked more comfortable than he did Monday.
It will be up to Flacco to prove that over the long haul, of course. Over the next four games, he faces four defenses that ranked in the top 10 against the pass last season: the Eagles, Browns and Chiefs. But playing consistently is more about Flacco than his opponent. He's thrown for over 290 yards eight previous times in the regular season. In the games that followed, he's averaged 206 yards passing.
Maybe that's why 61 percent of fans say Flacco isn't an elite quarterback in a SportsNation poll that drew 95,259 votes. Right now, Flacco is a very good quarterback. To be considered among the best, he has to play like one consistently. To be considered among the elite, he has to clear yet another hurdle -- winning a Super Bowl.