FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Unacknowledged as a real counterpart to Tom Brady, unconvincing in his quest for platinum membership in the NFL quarterback club, unemotional, unfunny — often unloved by many of his own fans — Joe Flacco walked into Gillette Stadium with dubious distinction as the quarterback with the most playoff victories who had never been to the Super Bowl.
He and his team walked out with the Lamar Hunt Trophy, his detractors disappearing like the New England Patriots in the second half Sunday night, mainly because, through the criticism and oncoming rushes, the Baltimore Ravens’ quarterback was also unfazed.
Ray Lewis plays for the grail one last time, and Jim Harbaugh faces his brother Jim’s San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII in two weeks because the better quarterback Sunday was not the one who is arguably the best of all time.
It was the maligned guy, a Delaware Blue Hen, who didn’t merely outduel Brady but directed the Ravens to three second-half touchdowns and got rid of whatever demons were left from two AFC championship losses.
“There are hurdles in your mind that get cleared just like hurdles on the field,” said Jim Caldwell, Flacco’s offensive coordinator of less than two months. “Joe did something special today that I think will have a carry-over effect. Be honest, he’s been doing it for a while, and not many people have noticed.”
Caldwell knows what this means for Flacco, because he was there in Indianapolis in 2007 as Peyton Manning’s quarterback coach when Manning finally faced down his monster and won, beating Brady and these same Patriots in the AFC championship game after failed tries in 2004 and 2005. A different confidence and belief emerged about Manning afterward, and it’s probably about time to at least consider Flacco a winner of the highest regard.
Yes, it’s mea culpa time, especially if you wrote in early December that Flacco doesn’t belong among the most accomplished quarterbacks of his era and really needs to stop obsessing about being called elite, because, frankly, we were getting sick of hearing that word when it came to Flacco.
As Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith said afterward, “We won that game because Joe won that game. That’s why we’re going to the Super Bowl. I’m sure there will be some people who won’t give him due unless we win it. But after the way he played in the second half, if that’s not elite, what is?”
One of every five Flacco completions during a 10-minute barrage from the middle of the third quarter through the first four minutes of the fourth quarter were for touchdowns, the last an 11-yarder to Anquan Boldin, who scored twice.
Economical, poised in the pocket, Flacco dissected New England’s secondary after Harbaugh told his quarterback and team to stop holding back and attack the Patriots during the final two quarters.
“Brady-like,” Harbaugh called Flacco’s second half in the Ravens’ locker room later. “He really was. We started to open things up and find the right people that were open. Joe didn’t hesitate at all. He just started going to the people that were available at the right time. It was very Brady-like.”
You can’t help but admit you’re wrong when a guy beats Peyton Manning in overtime one week and Brady eight days later, and he does it with such cool and confidence with his team trailing 13-7 at halftime.
Take a guess at Brady’s record before Sunday when leading at halftime at home in his career. Oh, a measly 67-0. If you envisioned Flacco to be the guy who would make him 67-1, you’re related to Flacco, employ him or were also a Blue Hen.
The truth: Brady’s counterpart at quarterback this week wasn’t really Joe Flacco; it was Joe Montana. Flacco wasn’t an all-time great, trying to become the only player in NFL history to start six Super Bowls. Flacco’s inability to ascend the Great Quarterback Ladder was probably the third- or fourth-best story going into the AFC championship game, long after This Could Be Ray’s Last Game and Is Tom the Greatest Ever?
But Flacco steererd clear all week, knowing he didn’t have to be the greatest ever. He just had to be the greatest quarterback on Sunday.
He struggled mightily at times this season, losing to Pittsburgh’s Charlie Batch and showing no moxie or real competence on the road at times. He also was pilloried for an offseason radio interview when he said, “I mean, I think I’m the best,” responding to a question about where he ranks among NFL QBs. “I don’t think I’m top five; I think I’m the best. I don’t think I’d be very successful at my job if I didn’t feel that way. I mean, c’mon. That’s not really too tough of a question.”
His words came across as unearned arrogance. And he didn’t back them one bit heading into a contract year in which his agent said his play would do the talking on the field.
But when it mattered, he moved the Ravens. He found Dennis Pitta, his tight end, across the middle for big yards and then a monstrous touchdown. He laid it out there for Smith, and when that didn’t work he found seams in the middle, rifling the ball to anyone who was open.
Now he’s an AFC champion, and the Ravens — a paper tiger for so much of the year, who battled injuries and the countdown of their warrior linebacker’s career, who dealt with the deaths of Smith’s brother and former owner Art Modell — are headed to play one more game in New Orleans in two weeks for everything in the NFL pot.
It makes sense to bet against Flacco overcoming that vaunted 49ers defense and a young counterpart across the line in Colin Kaepernick, who cannot do anything wrong this postseason. Or at least nothing he can’t fix with a huge run or a dart of a throw to Michael Crabtree or Vernon Davis.
But you can’t do it anymore. Not after today. He was a millisecond away a year ago when Lee Evans dropped that pass in the final minute here. A year later, the most maligned postseason quarterback in the NFL came back undaunted, unflinching and uncaring about whether you thought he belonged in the same class with Brady or Manning.
And damn if say-it-is-so Joe just didn’t lead the Ravens back to the Super Bowl for the first time in 12 years. When Cary Williams intercepted Brady’s final pass in the back of the end zone to make it official, Flacco found Lewis: “I just said, ‘Hey, we are going back to the Super Bowl, man. We’ve just got one more to win.’ ”
It was unfathomable a month ago when they had their doors blown off by Denver at home, more than unlikely when Flacco unleashed that bomb in the final seconds to force overtime in the Mile High city just a week ago. Now, amid the whooping and hollering in the visitor’s locker room at Gillette Stadium Sunday, it feels perfectly unreal.
For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.