The Flacco debate is essentially over

Whether you believe Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco is elite or not may become irrelevant within the next month.

Like it or not, he is going to be paid like an elite quarterback. Before the start of free agency, the Ravens have to give him a long-term contract or franchise him. The franchise tag will come in around $14.6 million. A long-term deal would net significantly more.

Ultimately, the Ravens have the option of paying him now or paying him later. But they can't escape paying him.

Imagine Flacco's leverage. Peyton Manning makes $19.2 million a year, and Flacco and the Ravens beat him in Denver while advancing to the Super Bowl. Drew Brees earned his $20 million contract with his 5,000-yard seasons and Super Bowl ring, but he hasn't won a road playoff game. Flacco has won six.

The Falcons have initiated contract extension talks with Matt Ryan, who will clearly seek the $20 million target, but he has one playoff win to Flacco's eight. Both entered the league in 2008 and turned their franchises into annual playoff contenders.

I've been pumping Flacco's elite status for the past couple of years, but it would be silly of me to tag an "I told you so" on his journey to Super Bowl XLVII. Flacco could stink it up next Sunday, and his critics could come back with their own "I told you so."

What Super Bowl XLVII will help determine, though, is where Flacco fits in the QB hierarchy. Could he be considered the seventh-best quarterback in the league or should he be in the top six?

The super-elite quarterbacks have the Super Bowl rings. From the 2003 to 2011 seasons, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Brees and Aaron Rodgers won all the Super Bowls. This is the first open season for a new quarterback to claim the championship in a decade.

Super Bowls mean everything for quarterbacks. Win one and you are a hero. Win two and you are an icon. Win three and your name comes up in Hall of Fame discussions.

Flacco's rise isn't that much different than Roethlisberger's in Pittsburgh. An injury opened a starting job during Roethlisberger's rookie season. Protected by a running game and a great defense, Roethlisberger went 13-0 as a starter during the regular season and helped the Steelers to the AFC Championship Game.

The Steelers asked Roethlisberger to throw only about 21 passes a game during that rookie season. He completed an average of 14. It wasn't until his third season that the Steelers allowed him to open up and throw more than 30 passes a game. By his fifth season, Roethlisberger had his second Super Bowl ring and was recognized as one of the best quarterbacks in the game.

Flacco is in the same division and earned his success. Finishing second to the Steelers in his first three years, Flacco and the Ravens had to hit the road as a wild-card team. The Ravens won the division the past two seasons, giving Flacco a chance to start the playoffs with one home game.

I liked how former offensive coordinator Cam Cameron developed Flacco during his first four years, but it was obvious they were growing apart entering their fifth season. Cameron has been criticized for being too conservative late in games or sometimes ignoring running back Ray Rice at critical junctures.

The switch to Jim Caldwell as offensive coordinator late in the season has allowed Flacco to be more of what he wants to be, which may be the reason the Ravens are in the Super Bowl. Even though he has completed only 54.8 percent of his passes during the playoffs this year, he has eight touchdown passes and zero interceptions in three playoff games.

The key number to look at is his yards per attempt. The 9.2 yards per attempt during the playoffs tips off Flacco's game. He is all about making the big play.

In training camp, Flacco and I discussed his vision of the offense. Coaches like long, time-consuming drives. Quarterbacks with big arms like Flacco and Roethlisberger don't.

"When you give yourself five third downs in a drive, you are not going to convert all five," Flacco said. "If you are going to score, you have to convert all five. That's hard."

Flacco was pushing for more aggressive plays on first and second down. He saw the team's limited scoring over the past couple of years as a problem of too many tough third-down plays.

In 2012, the Ravens were tied with four teams for the fourth-fewest 10-play drives. They had only 23. Flacco's problem is not a question of patience.

"Third down is the hardest down in the league," Flacco said. "You have to be lights out to be able to score if you have a lot of third downs."

Since taking over as offensive coordinator, Caldwell has made it a point to use Jacoby Jones a little more. Jones might not be the best pass-catcher, but his speed and the threat he'll keep going opens up space in the middle of the field for other receivers.

Working with Caldwell, Flacco and the offense have been better each week, particularly in the red zone.

"Joe has been throwing it extremely well," Caldwell said. "We've been able to mix the run and pass a little bit down there [in the red zone]. I think it's from preparation. We practice well, and we function well in those areas."

Flacco is ready to score in the Super Bowl and the financial world.