FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A year ago at Gillette Stadium, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco was one failed catch by Lee Evans from leading the Ravens to the Super Bowl. This time, and in fact this entire postseason, Flacco has been a quarterback who would not be denied.
In a postseason that is defining his career, Flacco carried the offense in coming back to beat the New England Patriots, 28-13, in Sunday's AFC Championship and led Baltimore to its first Super Bowl in 12 seasons by continuing to epitomize the unexpected run by the AFC's fourth seed.
Is there a bigger underdog on the underdog Ravens? For all those who laughed when Flacco declared himself the best quarterback in the NFL, guess who is smirking now? Flacco doesn't put up the big passing numbers like Peyton Manning. He doesn't have the Lombardi Trophies or most valuable player awards like Tom Brady. For the past two weeks, he has beaten them and outplayed them.
Sure, Flacco wasn't the best quarterback in the league this season. But he's the best quarterback in these playoffs, and that's what matters heading to New Orleans. On the same field where a Super Bowl dream died a year ago, Flacco has started to establish a legacy. While there will always be a debate whether he's elite, what can't be argued is that Flacco is now a Super quarterback.
In the AFC, that alone puts him in elite company. For the past nine seasons, this conference has been represented in the Super Bowl by Brady, Manning or Ben Roethlisberger. It's time to make room for Flacco. He certainly has earned it, quieting critics and upsetting future Hall of Fame quarterbacks with a strong arm and a stronger will.
"I don't know why people keep doubting him," said wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who caught two fourth-quarter touchdown passes from Flacco. "The bigger the situation is, the bigger he plays. He's proven that time and time again. Maybe everyone will get off his back."
The only thing on Flacco's back in these playoffs has been the Ravens' offense. Last week, Flacco rallied the Ravens past the Broncos with the deep ball. On Sunday, he orchestrated the comeback with pinpoint passes in the red zone. Trailing 13-7 at halftime, Flacco scored 21 unanswered points with touchdown passes of 5, 3 and 11 yards.
This wasn't just any comeback. This was the first time in 68 regular-season and postseason home starts that Brady lost when leading at halftime, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. In the second half, Flacco accounted for 70 percent of the offense and all of the Ravens' scoring.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh acknowledged that the coaches "took the handcuffs" off Flacco in the second half.
"We realized that we just needed to put some pressure on them in that way," Flacco said. "In the first half, we were probably a little bit run-heavy and they did a good job of stopping it. We didn't come all the way here to play it safe and hope to win. We came here to win the AFC Championship Game and you have to play to win."
The Ravens attacked the Patriots' secondary, especially when it was without its top cornerback. When Aqib Talib was on the field for the first quarter, Flacco was 1-of-6 for 17 yards, dumping the ball off to his running backs and tight ends. In the final three quarters with Talib on the sideline with a thigh injury, he was 20-of-30 for 223 yards and three touchdowns.
Flacco showed off his strong arm when his downfield passes zipped through the 25-mile per hour gusts to Torrey Smith. He showed extreme confidence throwing the ball in tight coverage in two fourth-quarter touchdown passes to Boldin. He even showed off his athleticism with a 14-yard scramble that set up the final touchdown.
The Ravens went to the Super Bowl in the 2000 season because of a record-setting defense. They are going back this time because of a record-setting quarterback. In notching his sixth playoff road win, Flacco passed Eli Manning for the most by a starting quarterback in postseason history.
"We’ve always believed in Joe," Harbaugh said. "For Joe to have this kind of a game on this kind of a stage, three weeks in a row? But Joe’s a great quarterback, and he hasn’t just proven it this year, he’s proven it for five years."
The biggest knock on Flacco is that he's consistently inconsistent. That has changed in the playoffs, where he has looked more like Brady than Brady himself. In three playoff games, Flacco has thrown eight touchdowns and no interceptions for a 114.7 passer rating.
It has been such a remarkable postseason that even if teammates are awestruck. Left tackle Bryant McKinnie was asked for his reaction if someone would've told him before the playoffs that Flacco would beat Manning and Brady in reaching the Super Bowl. McKinnie laughed for a few seconds before saying, "I don't know what I would say."
Who would have predicted this outburst from Flacco even six weeks ago? In Week 15, Flacco had an interception that was returned 98 yards for a touchdown in the Ravens' 34-17 loss to the Broncos. The lasting image was Flacco laying face first in the turf after a desperate tackle.
Now, Flacco is one win away from standing on a podium holding the Lombardi Trophy. Since that costly interception, he has averaged 14.7 yards per completion with 12 touchdowns and no interceptions.
"I've always been a fan of Joe's," said soon-to-be retired linebacker Ray Lewis. "He played his butt off again today and he was one of the biggest reasons why we're here today."
The Ravens' playoff run has been called Lewis' last ride. But, after another convincing performance, Flacco made it clear who is in the driver's seat.