SPORTS AUTHORITY FIELD DENVER
SATURDAY 4:30 P.M. EST
No quarterback has won more games since 2008 than Joe Flacco, who improved to 60--30 with a 24--9 victory over the Colts on Sunday in an AFC wild-card playoff game at M&T Bank Stadium. But for all his success, the one game Flacco hasn't played in looms as the largest blemish on his record.
A first-round pick out of Delaware in '08, Flacco has gone to the playoffs in each of his five NFL seasons, advancing to the AFC title game as a rookie and again at the end of last season. He lost both times, to the Steelers and the Patriots, respectively, leaving many to wonder if he's capable of taking Baltimore to a Super Bowl.
"People are skeptical," Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo says. "But we're not."
Flacco can start turning doubters into believers this Saturday when the fourth-seeded Ravens visit Peyton Manning's top-seeded Broncos, who pummeled Baltimore in Week 15. That 34--17 loss was the team's third straight, and the fallout was brutal for Flacco, who threw a 98-yard pick six to Chris Harris in the second quarter. In pursuit of the cornerback he attempted a touchdown-saving tackle but landed facedown on the turf. Futility personified, the pose became known as Flaccoing, Baltimore's take on Tebowing.
Flacco often draws the ire of fans, says nosetackle Terrence Cody, "because he's not putting up the same numbers as your Peyton Mannings." But he'll have to match Manning's firepower on Saturday.
Just as Flacco enters the Super-Bowl-or-bust phase of his career, Baltimore's once impenetrable D is making a final stand with 37-year-old linebacker Ray Lewis on the verge of retirement. From 2008 to '11, the unit was second in points allowed, and not once finished worse than 10th in yards allowed. This year it ranked 11th and 17th, respectively, while forcing a league-low six fumbles. The Colts, despite not having their regular coordinator last weekend—Bruce Arians was hospitalized with an undisclosed illness—amassed 419 yards against the Ravens. "The last four years we had a team good enough to play in the Super Bowl," Ayanbadejo says. "This is as urgent as it has ever been."
At first glance Flacco isn't a topflight quarterback. He passed for a career-high 3,817 yards this season, but that ranked only 14th in the NFL. Still, that doesn't reflect his greatest value in an offense that was penalized 121 times for a league-high 1,127 yards. Trailing only Drew Brees of the Saints, Flacco equaled Manning by completing 40 passes of 25 yards or longer during the regular season.
He has two game-changing wideouts in Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin, who combined for seven catches and 176 yards against the Colts. Ever the dual threat, Ray Rice ran for 70 yards and had a 47-yard catch-and-run to set up a TD. And rookie Bernard Pierce has emerged as an added wrinkle, surpassing 100 rushing yards in two of Baltimore's past three games.
Forget simply matching Manning: Does Flacco have the ability to take the Ravens all the way to New Orleans?
"There's no reason he can't. There's no reason he shouldn't," Ayanbadejo says. "He's got the players around him."
When Baltimore has the ball ...
The most noticeable change since offensive coordinator Cam Cameron was fired and replaced by QB coach Jim Caldwell on Dec. 10 has been the emergence of rookie third-round RB Bernard Pierce, who has rushed for 335 of his 635 yards (including the postseason) under Caldwell. Ray Rice will still slip out of the backfield on dump-offs, but Caldwell has Joe Flacco taking more shots downfield. In beating the Colts on Sunday, five Ravens WRs had catches of at least 20 yards.
According to Pro Football Focus, Dannell Ellerbe, playing for an injured Ray Lewis, was the NFL's most efficient ILB at harassing QBs, with 18 pressures (sacks, hits, hurries) on 79 blitzes. With Lewis back, Ellerbe, still a starter, could fly under the radar by attacking RT Orlando Franklin, who allowed a team-high 29 pressures this season.
INSIDE THE NUMBERS
TDs by Joe Flacco on balls thrown more than 20 yards in the air, most in the NFL.
Pass rushes on which Paul Kruger has a sack, hit or hurry, best among 3--4 OLBs.
TAKING FLAK Critics are waiting for Flacco to make postseason magic, and he'll get his chance when he takes his long-ball act to Denver.