Ravens' playoff success rests on Joe Flacco

BALTIMORE -- The Baltimore Ravens were tied with the Cleveland Browns at halftime when something unusual happened just before the players left the locker room. Quarterback Joe Flacco spoke.

"Let's just go win the [expletive] game," he said.

It wasn't anything close to a Ray Lewis rant. It was, however, a powerful message from someone who rarely speaks up, which got the attention of everyone in the room and proved poignant in what became a near-flawless finish.

Letting loose in the fourth quarter, Flacco rallied the Ravens to a 20-10 comeback victory over the Browns and guided them to a playoff berth for the sixth time in seven seasons.

With the season on the line -- and knowing a win would clinch a postseason berth with a San Diego Chargers loss -- Flacco delivered his most clutch performance of the year in completing eight of his final nine passes for 161 yards and two touchdowns. His passer rating in the final quarter was a perfect 158.3.

"When Joe is hot, he's tough to handle," wide receiver Torrey Smith said. "That's on us at times to get him hot and our offensive line to do a great job of protecting him. When you get him hot, we've seen what he can do."

The Ravens will play at the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first round of the playoffs on Saturday night, and how far they go ultimately rests on the strong arm of Flacco.

When Flacco is off his game -- as he was last week and for the first three quarters Sunday -- the Ravens are going to lose to fourth-string quarterback Case Keenum and trail undrafted rookie quarterback Connor Shaw.

When he is on target, Flacco can carry an offense that is missing both starting offensive tackles, lacking a No. 1 wide receiver and starting a journeyman running back.

The Ravens won a Super Bowl two years ago because Flacco delivered one of the best postseasons in NFL history. If they want to make a deep run, they will need Flacco to put this team on his back again.

"I’m not going to be surprised if, three weeks from now, we’re sitting here and still playing," Flacco said. "I think when I say anything can happen -- or if I was to say that -- that’s implying we don’t deserve to win any games in the playoffs. Like I said, there’s a reason there’s six teams from each [conference] in the playoffs. We played a tough year, had a lot of ups and downs, but obviously enough ups to give us a chance to go win it, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

The scary part for the Ravens is they don't know which Flacco will show up. It varies from week to week, quarter to quarter.

In the first three quarters Sunday, he mishandled two snaps and nearly had two passes picked in the end zone (Steve Smith broke up one interception). Then, when the scoreboard showed the Chargers were losing in the fourth quarter, it was like Flacco went from feeling the pressure of a must-win game to throwing the ball downfield as if he had nothing to lose.

The Ravens took a 13-10 lead in the fourth quarter, when Flacco hit Torrey Smith for a 53-yard pass and connected with him for a 16-yard touchdown one play later. It helped that the Browns only blitzed Flacco once in the fourth quarter after doing so 34 percent of the time in the first three quarters, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Asked if the 21st game-winning drive of his career was the type of big moment that defines a quarterback, Flacco essentially shrugged his shoulders. "I have no idea," he said. "[If] we go win the Super Bowl, I guess it will be.”

The Ravens have a shot at their second Vince Lombardi Trophy in three years because of Flacco. Not only did he speak up at halftime, but he backed up his words in a critical fourth quarter.

"You can’t expect anything long from Joe, but the delivery was powerful," Smith said. "You all act like Joe is the most boring guy in the world. He has some fire to him."

The Ravens' postseason success depends on how long Joe Cool can remain hot.