Playoff run puts Flacco on road to respect

Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco is finally gaining the respect that many feel is long overdue. Brett Davis/US Presswire

Here are some facts about Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco heading into Sunday's AFC Championship Game:

Flacco is a winner. His 61 wins, including playoffs, are the most by an NFL quarterback since he stepped into the league in 2008.

He has the strongest arm in the NFL. His average completion in these playoffs is 20.4 yards and his high-arcing miracle pass late in the fourth quarter in Denver traveled 54 yards in the Mile High air.

And he's the hottest quarterback in the playoffs right now.

Wait ... what?

Flacco is the only quarterback to lead his team to the conference championship game in three of the past five seasons. Last year, he outplayed Tom Brady in the AFC Championship Game and was one failed catch away from taking the Ravens to the Super Bowl. This year, he won a shootout with Peyton Manning, the likely NFL Most Valuable Player, in the AFC divisional playoffs to once again put Baltimore within one game of the Super Bowl.

When the Ravens began the playoffs, all the talk was about how this was going to be Ray Lewis' last ride. Now, two wins into a magical postseason run, this has become Flacco's road to respect. People laughed at Flacco when he said during the offseason he was the best quarterback in the NFL. Fans rolled their eyes when Flacco's agent called him elite this week. But if Flacco wins two more games, there's one label that you won't be able to take away: Super Bowl-winning quarterback. You won't have to put him on a pedestal with the top five quarterbacks in the league. You will, however, have to give him his due.

Do I think Flacco is elite? Certainly not. He's the streakiest quarterback in the NFL. When he's bad, he's Blaine Gabbert bad. Two of the three worst games by a quarterback this season in terms of Total QBR belong to Flacco. When he's good, he's among the best in the league. Right now, when it comes to the playoffs, no one is playing better than Flacco. Not Manning. Not Brady. Over his past six playoff games, Flacco has averaged 247.5 yards passing with 12 touchdowns and two interceptions (101.4 passer rating).

"If we keep winning, I think he'll get his respect," Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith said. "I think Joe has the skill level to be one of those great quarterbacks."

Flacco, who turned 28 on Wednesday, will never be viewed in the same light as Brady, Manning, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees. He won't put up 5,000 yards or 35 touchdowns in a season. To be fair, he shouldn't have those types of numbers when he has a running back such as Ray Rice lining up behind him.

When you're judging Flacco by statistics, he is an average quarterback. His 3,817 yards ranked 14th in the NFL. His 22 touchdowns were tied for 15th. And moments like giving up a 98-yard interception return for a touchdown in December will continue to hurt his image.

But this playoff run is proving why Flacco has to be considered a top-10 quarterback, if not among the top seven or eight passers in the league. He has averaged 39.8 yards on his five touchdown passes in this year's playoffs. And among quarterbacks to complete at least 20 passes in a single postseason, only one has had a higher yards per completion than what Flacco has produced: Johnny Unitas in 1970.

"Joe Flacco has elevated his game to another level," Rice said.

These playoffs go beyond Flacco gaining national respect. This run has been about Flacco stepping out of the Ravens' defensive shadow and taking control of this team.

For more than a decade, the Ravens relied on their defense to impose its will and won despite not having a high-scoring offense. These days, while the defense has had its moments, Baltimore is winning because its offense is delivering big plays and lots of points.

How times have changed over the past 12 months. It was at this point last season, days before the AFC Championship Game, when safety Ed Reed was criticizing Flacco. He talked about Flacco looking rattled and questioned whether he had a hold of the offense. This year, Lewis passed the torch to Flacco in one of his final games of his career. In the tunnel before Saturday's divisional playoff game, Lewis told Flacco: "You’re the general now. Lead us to a victory. You will lead us today. I’m just here to facilitate things."

That's exactly what Flacco did Saturday. He led the Ravens to victory. The Ravens are in the AFC Championship Game because of Flacco, and not because of a clutch play from Lewis, Reed or Terrell Suggs. The special teams allowed two touchdowns. The defense gave up three touchdowns in the red zone. The Ravens' receivers dropped a handful of passes in the fourth quarter. So when every other part of the team faltered, Flacco delivered the big plays, continually throwing over the top of the NFL's second-ranked defense. His 70-yard game-tying touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones didn't just gain the attention of the football world. It elevated him in the eyes of his teammates.

“He grew up today,” Lewis said. “To watch what he did today is probably one of the greatest things that I’ll always sit back and remember.”

Lewis is leaving the Ravens after 17 seasons, but Flacco isn't going anywhere. He wasn't going anywhere even before his standout performances in the playoffs. The only real options facing the Ravens this offseason were to sign Flacco to a long-term contract or put the $14.6 million franchise tag on him. Baltimore was never going to let Flacco walk after he stabilized a Ravens quarterback carousel that included the likes of Jeff Blake, Chris Redman, Kyle Boller, Anthony Wright and Steve McNair.

The tag is the more likely scenario because it's hard to see the Ravens paying him $19 million to $20 million a year, which is the going rate if agent Joe Linta truly believes Flacco is a top-five quarterback. Even though he has proved he can beat elite quarterbacks, Flacco isn't what Brady is to New England or Manning is to Denver. At least, not at this point.

That's why it's wrong to say Flacco is playing for a contract when Baltimore probably had its mind set on putting the tag on him already. This playoff run was never about money.

When Flacco takes the field Sunday in the AFC Championship Game, it's about moving one step closer to a ring and earning the respect that he firmly believes he deserves.