OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Joe Flacco is the only quarterback in NFL history to reach the playoffs in each of his first four years. He's 44-20 during the regular season with the Baltimore Ravens and 4-3 in the postseason.
Despite his success, Flacco has found it easier to dodge blitzing linebackers than fend off his critics.
Some say he's not mobile enough in the pocket. Some question his decision-making under pressure. Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley took the bashing to another level, saying the Ravens won't win a Super Bowl with Flacco "in this lifetime."
Flacco smirks at all this. After all, he's one of only eight NFL starting quarterbacks still playing, and he intends to make the best of that situation Sunday when Baltimore (12-4) faces the Houston Texans (11-6) for the right to play in the AFC title game.
Asked Wednesday how it feels to generate such negative reviews, Flacco responded, "I don't care. We've won a lot of games around here. This is the second year in a row we won 12 games. At the end of the day, do you see the criticism sometimes and say, 'What the (heck) are they talking about?' Yeah. But who cares?
"It all comes down to three games now. Win this one, win the next one, win the Super Bowl. Then what are they going to say? That's what we've got to do, that's what I've got to do. I'm not thinking of anything else."
Flacco, who turns 27 on Monday, didn't play at a big-time college. He has never been named to the Pro Bowl, never led the league in passes and has never been compared to many of the elite quarterbacks in the game today.
All he does is win, and that's OK with Ravens coach John Harbaugh. After being drafted out of the University of Delaware, Flacco started in Game 1 of his first season when Harbaugh was a rookie head coach. Together, the team has made Baltimore the only team in the league to reach the playoffs in each of the past four years.
"Joe Flacco, he's our quarterback. He's the Ravens quarterback. We think he's a great player, a great person," Harbaugh said. "And the best is yet to come. Joe is like every quarterback. You watch the curve and you watch him develop and grow. We've all had a front-row seat. You see the good, you see the not so good, like with any player. Joe's been overwhelmingly good, and he's only going to get better. I can't wait to see it. I'm looking forward to seeing it on Sunday."
The not so good? Flacco had a career-low 57.6 completion percentage this season and threw 12 interceptions, tying a career high. He also fumbled 11 times, losing six.
But the Ravens are back in the playoffs as AFC North champions, thanks in no small part to Flacco's game-ending, beat-the-clock, 92-yard drive in Pittsburgh on Nov. 6 that gave Baltimore a 23-20 victory and a sweep of the Steelers. Pittsburgh and Baltimore finished with the same record, but the Steelers entered as the No. 5 seed and were ousted last weekend while the Ravens enjoyed a bye.
"I think Joe has proven himself, especially after we faced Pittsburgh and he led us down the field," Ravens running back Ray Rice said. "I was involved in the offense, but that was solely Joe Flacco doing his thing. Him being calm, him being himself, I think that's really Joe. It's no surprise me and him are back in the playoffs, back in the hunt again, ready to fight for what everybody's fighting for, and that's the Super Bowl."
Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, who has seen more than a dozen quarterbacks come and go since he arrived in 1996, believes Flacco can take Baltimore to a world championship.
"There's something about Joe I've liked from Day One," Lewis said. "You have to appreciate a young kid who comes out with that much talent, and now you see where his talent is going. Now he's more of a mentor, getting the offense to understand him. You see his composure and how he's settling in to really control this offense. Now where we are, why wouldn't it be Joe to lead us to a Super Bowl?"
Flacco rarely garners the same style points as some of the NFL's more notable quarterbacks, but those guys don't have Rice lining up behind them -- as Flacco is quick to point out.
"You guys want everybody to be Aaron Rodgers and be Tom Brady, but you guys realize those (teams) don't run the ball, right?" Flacco said. "If we tried to do that, the criticism we'd take around here would be ridiculous. We could win eight games like that and we could lose one and you guys would be like, 'What were you guys doing?' You guys have to remember that. If you guys want an elite quarterback, you have to stop complaining when we go out there and throw the ball 60 times a game, because that's what elite quarterbacks do."
Heck, even if he takes the Ravens to the Super Bowl, Flacco might not get the credit he deserves.
"It's really going to come down to what team is the best," he said. "I'm sure if we win, I'll have nothing to do with why we won, according to you guys."
Flacco decided a few weeks ago to grow a Fu Manchu mustache, and the resulting patch of facial hair has left him open to criticism of a different kind. Some people like it, others hate it. Almost no one is indifferent.
"People will get going with anything, no matter how crazy it is," Flacco said. "You figured something was going to happen with it, good or bad. It's not really my personality to have something like this on my face, but you just have a little fun and see how people take it."