FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The last time Joe Flacco squared off with the New England Patriots here in the playoffs, he was hobbled with a badly bruised hip and leg sporting nearly every color of the spectrum.
And the Baltimore Ravens won handily despite Flacco being relegated to merely handing off to Pro Bowl running back Ray Rice, who shouldered the workload during a dominant 33-14 AFC wild-card victory.
Heading into today’s AFC championship game against the top-seeded Patriots at Gillette Stadium, Flacco is unhurt and has shrugged off and attempted to laugh off absorbing the equivalent of verbal body blows, uppercuts and haymakers from Ravens Pro Bowl free safety Ed Reed.
This shapes up as a defining moment for Flacco, who has endured serious scrutiny all week while deserved, glowing praise has been heaped upon Patriots superstar quarterback Tom Brady.
Reed accused Flacco of being rattled during the Ravens’ 20-13 AFC divisional playoff win over the Houston Texans where he was sacked five times and threw two touchdowns with no interceptions. The former NFL Defensive Player of the Year later apologized to Flacco and both downplayed a controversy that dominated conversations all week.
Flacco also garnered a lot of support in the Ravens’ locker room prior to today’s kickoff.
“I expect Joe to deliver when we need him to,” Pro Bowl offensive guard Marshal Yanda said. “There’s no doubt about it. Everybody on this team is behind him. He’s a winner. He’s definitely a leader out there for us.
“When the crunch time comes, we have all the confidence in the world in him. There’s no doubt he can get the job done, and he will. It’s not even a worry for us. We’re just worried about blocking for him and letting him make the play.”
Doubted, derided and treated like a detriment rather than an asset, Flacco is determined to prove he belongs on this stage by leading his team to the Super Bowl.
Still, Flacco said he doesn’t believe the perception would change about him even if he’s able to outduel Brady.
“I don’t care,” Flacco said. “I will be wearing a ring, and we will be holding a trophy. The perception probably won’t change, but it does not really matter.”
Although Flacco has won five of his eight career playoff games, he has passed for under 200 yards in seven of those games with six touchdowns and seven interceptions.
Flacco has just one touchdown pass and six interceptions in his three postseason losses. His overall quarterback rating in the playoffs is 66.2, completing just 53.1 percent of his throws for 1,226 yards.
“Joe has been here a long time,” Reed said. “I know Joe is a smart quarterback. He’s our quarterback regardless of anything, and that’s pretty much that is all to it. We talked a little bit, but it’s no different than the talks we’ve had over the weeks. I didn’t have to say much. He didn’t have to say much. We all know the goal.”
During the aforementioned game against the Patriots on Jan. 10, 2010, Flacco threw only 10 passes, completing four of them for 34 yards and no scores.
Still banged up a week after that game during a 20-3 playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts, Flacco wasn’t able to do much better as he completed just 20 of 35 passes for 189 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions for a 48.4 quarterback rating.
Nicknamed Joe Cool by his teammates, it wouldn’t bother Flacco if he had a limited role again against the Patriots as long as his team wins.
“I didn’t have to be a big part of it, and that’s just the way it goes,” Flacco said. “If we can get a win like that again, then we’ll get a win like that again. Anyway we can get a win we’re going to take it.”
Flacco is the first quarterback in NFL history since the AFL-NFL merger to start a playoff game in each of his first four seasons and win at least one playoff game.
And his 44 regular-season wins are the most by a starting quarterback in his first four seasons in NFL history.
“I’m more shocked with how people can speak about somebody who is just a flat-out winner,” middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. “When I first saw that kid throw the football, I said, ‘That kid is special.’ You watch all of these guys who went in the top draft picks, and they aren’t even in football anymore. You’re talking about a guy who came into this league, has been to the playoffs all four of his years, and has given his team the opportunity to win games.”
Durable and tough, Flacco has never missed a start in his career.
Yet, Flacco doesn’t garner much praise.
Strong-armed with decent mobility, Flacco has been labeled as a game manager. Meanwhile, Rice has emerged as the focal point of the offense.
Flacco was joking somewhat, but did say prior to the Texans game: “I’m sure if we win, I’ll have nothing to do with why we won, according to you guys.”
Against the Texans a week ago, Flacco completed only 14 of 27 passes for 176 yards.
“It just didn’t look like he had a hold on the offense,” Reed said during a satellite radio interview last Monday.
Conversely, a red-hot Brady completed 25 of 34 passes for 363 yards, six touchdowns and one interception last week during a 45-10 rout of the Denver Broncos.
Brady passed for 5,235 yards, 39 touchdowns and 12 interceptions for a 105.6 quarterback rating during the regular season.
The Ravens know what they’re about to face.
“What makes Tom Brady such a good player, maybe one of the elite quarterbacks that ever played the game?” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “The thing is he has total control of what they’re doing offensively, first of all. That’s where it starts. They’ve definitely built an offense around him. They built an offense together over a long period of time, and all that stuff expresses itself in what they do.
“And they do a lot of really clever things that really challenge a defense. And the more you study that, the more respect you have for it. And he’s been a part of that from the beginning, so it’s a very nice assimilation. On top of that, he’s big, he’s accurate. He throws the ball hard. He throws a catchable ball at the same time. He moves around fairly well in the pocket. So, all those things.”
During the regular season, Flacco passed for 3,610 yards, 20 touchdowns and 12 interceptions for an 80.9 quarterback rating.
What do the Patriots think about Flacco?
“Flacco has a great arm, and that’s first and foremost,” Patriots defensive lineman Vince Wilfork said. “He has great poise in the pocket. He’s probably one of the toughest guys in the pocket, and even though he may get hit at times, he’ll stand in and take the lick and hang on to the football. He’s a great passer, and he’s a leader for those guys, also.”
Flacco is extremely cognizant of how failing to reach the Super Bowl or losing the Super Bowl would go over, especially with Lewis and Reed approaching the end of their storied careers.
In the ultimate proving ground, the AFC North champion Ravens are banking on Flacco bringing them back to the Super Bowl for the first time since winning their lone championship following the 2000 season.
“In order to be a special team, you have to win a Super Bowl,” Flacco said. “You can’t get to the playoffs and lose every year and expect to be considered a special team. We are definitely a good football team.
“That is without question. To be a special team, you have to win championships. We are working towards that. That is why we are here right now.”