When Joe Flacco shuffled into the interview room Sunday night at M&T Bank Stadium, he didn't look like a quarterback who had just won an NFL playoff game. His shoulders sagged. His eyes looked tired. His voice lacked the ring of certainty you'd prefer in a QB.
Beaten down? That might be overstating it. But the Baltimore Ravens quarterback definitely looked beaten up — tested by a season that has seen his passer rating drop from 93.6 (a career high) to 80.9 (about his rookie level) and, in the previous three hours, used as a trampoline by the Houston Texans, who sacked him five times in the Ravens' 20-13 win.
Maybe the weariness Flacco projected was as much about the future as the past, as much about the next seven days as the previous 19 weeks. After all, he had to know what was coming: not just a trip to balmy New England for the AFC title game against the Patriots, but an endless torrent of "Can Joe play well enough for the Ravens to win?" talk in the local media. Let's face it, if the Ravens don't win, the storyline will undoubtedly be about the gap between the two quarterbacks — Average Joe, who had the 18th-best rating in the league, and Hall of Fame-bound Tom Brady, who just tied a postseason record by throwing six touchdown passes against the Denver Broncos.
"They put pressure on me," Flacco said of the Texans' pass rush, sounding as if some of the wind were still knocked out of him. "We probably need to clean up some things on offense."
The question is whether the adjustments can be made in a week — and whether Flacco can get his mind right for what could be the biggest game of his life. When he played in his first AFC championship game as a rookie, nobody was too hard on him after he threw three interceptions in a 23-14 loss to Pittsburgh. He already had exceeded expectations by leading the Ravens to two playoff wins on the road (and besides, he had his whole career ahead of him).
But it's different now. He's a four-year man, a veteran of eight postseason games, and should be up to carrying a little more of the load — especially since the Baltimore defense, long the team's fulcrum, isn't quite as spry as it used to be. Ray Lewis, the Ravens' middle linebacker extraordinaire, fended off queries about retirement Sunday, but at his age (36) it can't be far away. The same goes for Ed Reed (33), the perennial All-Pro safety.
Reed probably was thinking along these lines when he called out Flacco on a radio show Monday.
The Houston defense, from his vantage point, "kind of rattled" Flacco he said. "They were getting to him. ... It just didn't look like he had a hold on the offense."
Of course, he added, the offensive line didn't have its best day, either. "They gotta communicate better, gotta pick up blocks," he said. "And Joe's gotta get the ball out of his hand."
The message was clear: If you play like that against the Patriots, son — a club that puts up 30 points on just about everybody — we have no chance.
Reed can get away with saying these things because, in his mind, the defense is "the big brother of the team" — and there are times when a big brother must speak up. There also comes a time when a little brother needs to grow up — and for Flacco and the offense, that time is at hand.
After the Houston game, Lewis and coach John Harbaugh stuck up for their quarterback, perhaps sensing he might be getting down on himself. Harbaugh said Flacco did "a great job under fire" (read: zero turnovers, though he had a fumble that was recovered by one of his offensive linemen). And Lewis said, "I told Joe, 'No one wins games by themselves. We are in this as a family; we are in this as a team.' ... Joe has come in and led us to the playoffs in each of the last four years. If that was anybody else, they would be praising him. Joe Flacco has done a heck of a job getting us into the position to win."
Against the Texans, though, it was the defense and special teams that mostly got the Ravens in a position to win, setting up both Baltimore touchdowns with takeaways at the Houston 2 (muffed punt) and 34 (interception). Flacco, for his part, completed 14 of 27 passes for a modest 176 yards and two scores.
He's an interesting case study, you have to admit. On the plus side, he has won five playoff games in his first four seasons — at least one each year. No other quarterback in his draft class, beginning with Atlanta's Matt Ryan at No. 3 — has won even one. (Flacco, you may recall, went 15 picks after Ryan.)
On the other hand, it might be more accurate to say he was the quarterback of record in five playoff victories. When the Ravens whomped the Patriots 33-14 two years ago, for instance, they ran it 52 times and threw it 10. Flacco's passer rating that afternoon: 10. His career postseason rating: 66.2.
Granted, he's better than Trent Dilfer, who rode one of the greatest defenses in history to the 2000 title. And granted, his supporting cast, outside of Ray Rice and wily Anquan Boldin, is fairly pedestrian. But there's nothing about Flacco — save his 6-foot-6 height — that really stands out. How many quarterbacks, with Lewis and Co. behind them, could be doing what he's doing?
So that's where he is as Sunday approaches — a little brother trying to become a big brother, with the biological clocks of Lewis and Reed ticking ever louder. The Patriots, the team of the millennium (so far), are on the docket, and Joe Flacco has to play the best game he's ever played. That's all.
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