Flacco has more to prove

Joe Flacco has lately outplayed both Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. But he still has a few things to accomplish before he is truly on their level. Andy Lyons/Getty Images

I have called him Fluke-o. And I have been right and very wrong.

I have called Joe Flacco the Baltimore Ravens' weakest link. And once again last Saturday, when least expected, he was their greatest strength.

This season Flacco played the two worst statistical games of any NFL quarterback -- historically horrendous games. Yet now, fresh off outplaying Peyton Manning in Denver, he returns to the same Foxborough, Mass., stadium in which he outplayed Tom Brady in last year's AFC Championship Game. Yes, Joe Flacco went Joe Montana on two of the greatest QBs ever in big playoff games in their stadiums.

Fluke-o is now 7-4 in the postseason with five road wins, tied for all-time best with Eli Manning and Roger Staubach. In his past six playoff games (four on the road) he has thrown 12 touchdown passes to just two interceptions. Yet …

Forgive me, Ravens fans, I'm still not buying your No. 5. I still think Flacco will prove to be more Achilles' heel than mighty warrior Achilles. As expectations rise toward Sunday's AFC title game and Flacco hears and reads about how he finally has proved to be what he and his agent have insisted he is -- ELITE! -- he'll feel pressure like never before and turn back into Fluke-o.

Be careful what you wish for, Joe. You won't be able to sneak up on this game.

But yes, I admit this is to some degree wishful thinking. For the second season in a row I picked New England to win the Super Bowl. And now Flacco, the best worst quarterback I've ever attempted to decipher, is starting to haunt me.

Yes, Ravens fans, in a 31-30 win in Baltimore early this season, Flacco (28-39 for 382 yards, 3 TDs, 1 interception) AGAIN outgunned Brady (28-41 for 335, 1 TD, 0 picks). So maybe it's slightly possible I'm underrating.

NO. He's far more Fluke-o than Montana. The oddsmakers confirm it.

With Ray Lewis (triceps surgery) all but raising himself from the NFL dead and inspiring and spearheading a Ravens D long on fearless savvy, that defense is now a little better than New England's (which did allow 425 yards and 28 points to Houston at home last Sunday). And without Rob Gronkowski, who re-broke his forearm (and possibly my Super Bowl prediction), the Patriots don't have quite the weapons the Ravens do in Ray Rice, Torrey Smith, Anquan Boldin, Jacoby Jones, Dennis Pitta and Ed Dickson.

So how could the Patriots possibly be 9½-point favorites over a team that did everything but beat them in this game a year ago? Simple: The oddsmakers still trust Brady far more than they do Flacco … even though, I must admit, Flacco's perfectly thrown TD pass to Lee Evans last year nearly sent Baltimore to the Super Bowl seconds before Billy Cundiff's rushed/hooked 32-yard field goal, one of the worst choke jobs in NFL playoff history, robbed the Ravens of even a shot at overtime.

Yet remember the internal controversy the Ravens faced this very week a year ago? The day after their dangerously difficult 23-20 home playoff win over third-string Texans QB T.J. Yates, the great Ed Reed criticized Flacco in a SiriusXM NFL Radio interview, saying "I think Joe was kind of rattled a little bit … it just didn't look like he had a hold of the offense."

The most telling quarterback stat is QBR, a scale of 0-100. Flacco's was a sorry 18.7 to Yates' 15.6.

This reminded me of a Ravens playoff loss two years ago in Pittsburgh. They led 21-7 at half. But they needed Terrible Towels to wipe up the mess Flacco made in the third quarter with an interception and lost fumble. The Steelers won 31-24. Flacco threw for a mere 125 yards with a QBR of 18.8 (and yes, I remember the two killer drops he suffered in the fourth quarter).

I was later told by a Steelers player that on the field after the game, he and several teammates talked with several Ravens stars who said they would never go far in the playoffs with Flacco at quarterback.

More than just in performance, Flacco has never quite seemed to fit as a Raven. In a team picture of men you do not mess with -- Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata -- Flacco is a glaringly obvious Waldo. It's as if "The Expendables" chose a gangly new 6-foot-6 leader from "Revenge of the Nerds." On a team fueled by RayLew's fire-and-brimstone emotion, a team that talks tough and plays tougher, the guy playing the leadership position -- the quarterback -- comes off as an emotionless cipher. Flacco acts more like the punter.

Still, Flacco as nothing more than a "game manager" has always benefited from low to no expectations. To quote the movie title: "The Benefits of Being a Wallflower."

But the Ravens' up/down confidence in Flacco has made for several epic "First Take" debates between me and my frenemy Terrell Suggs, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year. He knows that I know that he knows his team doesn't always trust Flacco. But I also know Flacco has grown on the Ravens with clutch late-game performances. In the regular season, his touchdown passes beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh in 2010 with 32 seconds left and in 2011 with eight seconds left.

Flacco, or Fluke-o, has often given Suggs or me extreme debate advantage.

Yet it's significant Suggs always calls his QB "Cool Joe" instead of the usual "Joe Cool." There is nothing particularly cool about the off-field Flacco. I've met him -- seems like a nice, fairly quiet guy. OK, he occasionally gets a little defensive about his lack of respect. But on the field, Flacco never appears rattled even while playing rattled. Hence: Cool Joe.

Prior to last year's AFC title game, ESPN analysts I spoke with all agreed that Flacco's biggest issue was self-confidence. Though drafted 18th overall, he wasn't able to build much NFL-quality confidence at Delaware, where his Fightin' Blue Hens twice lost to New Hampshire. But after Flacco outplayed Brady in Foxborough, those analysts believed he never again would doubt himself. This, I kept hearing, was an "elite" breakthrough.

And this season at Houston, Flacco recorded the lowest QBR since the stat was first used in 2008 -- 0.3! Say what, T-Sizzle? Against the same Texans in Houston, Aaron Rodgers had a QBR of 95.8. Suggs might be able to score a 0.3 playing quarterback with his torn biceps tendon. The Ravens lost that game 43-13.

Then at home against Peyton's Broncos, Flacco managed the second-worst QBR ever -- 0.4! Denver led 31-3 on the way to a 34-17 cakewalk that helped make the Broncos 9-point home favorites over Fluke-o last Saturday. And of course, when least expected, Flacco stepped smartly up through the rush and used the NFL's strongest deep-ball arm to launch a missile up through the thin air that took poor Rahim Moore, the Broncos safety, by surprise. Seventy yards later, it was 35-all with 31 seconds left. Rahim was about to need a Flacco jacket.

Advantage, Suggs.

Anyone remember that Sunday night game a season ago in Baltimore, in which Flacco and Mark Sanchez engaged in one of the most pathetic QB duels ever? Flacco completed 10 of 31 for a QBR of 14.7. Sanchez went 11-of-35 for a 0.8 QBR.

Seriously, Suggs?

Flacco has 19 games with a QBR under 20, tied with Sanchez for the most since 2008. Yet incredibly, Flacco also has 19 games over 80. The only other QB with seven over 90 and seven under 10 is the wildly erratic Jay Cutler. Flacco has often been even better than Cutler and sometimes even worse.

Joe Flacco, the unRaven, is on his way to becoming the greatest worst quarterback ever. He hasn't made a Pro Bowl and I doubt he ever will. But in their past two meetings, Flacco has owned Tom Brady.

Is Brady at a disadvantage because he's up against a defense that has often owned him? Yes. Ray Lewis is the Brady/Peyton of middle linebackers and can often checkmate the quarterbacks' checks. Is Flacco at an advantage because he can fling jump balls in the vicinity of the beastly Boldin and the electrifying Torrey Smith or just hand or flip it to Ray Rice? No doubt.

But some Fluke-o still lurks in Flacco. When you least expect it, he also can throw a 0.3 at you. Ravens fans: Prepare yourselves for a "Say it ain't so, Joe" game this Sunday.

And if he again outplays Tom Brady in the AFC title game at Gillette Stadium, please hide the razor blades for me.