January 28, 2013

As Ray Lewis exits, Joe Flacco enters spotlight for Baltimore Ravens

The Baltimore quarterback is starting to receive his due.

NEW ORLEANS -- Receiver Torrey Smith touched on it last week when he said the Baltimore Ravens were much more than Ray Lewis.

It wasn't a statement of jealousy regarding the abundance of media attention given to the Ravens' star linebacker who will retire after Super Bowl XLVII not only as a lock for the Hall of Fame but for also being one of the most inspirational leaders of all time.

But it was a fact.

Lewis has already won a Super Bowl.

The same can't be said for Smith, future Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed, defensive end Terrell Suggs or running back Ray Rice.

They have Super Bowl dreams of their own and they don't start and end with Lewis going out on top.

Lewis is no longer the team's best defensive player. That would be nose tackle Haloti Nagta.

No matter how much Lewis is talked about in the days leading up to the game, he is not the player considered most responsible for the Ravens being in the Super Bowl.

That would be quarterback Joe Flacco, who has risen from mediocrity to elite status.

Flacco outplayed rookie top pick Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts before outdueling a pair of future Hall of Fame quarterbacks in Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in victories over the Denver Broncos and the New England Patriots in three near-flawless playoff performances.

The past two were in comeback fashion.

Flacco has thrown for 853 yards, with eight touchdowns and no interceptions in the playoffs. His passer rating in the playoffs is 114.7.

The only quarterbacks in NFL history with more touchdowns and no interceptions in the Super Bowl era were Hall of Famers Steve Young and Joe Montana.

Asked the difference between this Ravens team and the good ones that fell short of the Super Bowl so many times in the past, Suggs didn't hesitate.

"Joe Flacco, he's the difference," Suggs said. "He has been an awesome quarterback.

"It's great to see his maturity and his growth and is ability to not only to make the big throw and the big play. We are all proud of him."

Flacco, however, has always been confident in his ability. Earlier in the season he said he was an elite player.

"I assume everybody thinks they're a top-five quarterback," Flacco said at time. "I mean, I think I'm the best. 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.

"But that doesn't mean that things are gonna work out that way. It just means that that's the way it is, that's the way I feel it is, and that's the way I feel it should be."

Perception of this Ravens team over past few years has been a defensive-led squad that won in spite of Flacco.

Never mind that Flacco has 15 touchdown passes and just two interceptions in the past seven playoff games going back to 2010. Never mind that he has six playoff road wins, the most ever in the Super Bowl era.

Or his 54-26 record in five seasons as the Ravens' starter.

What most point to was the stellar defense on his side and his mediocre passing stats overall. He has never passed for 4,000 yards or thrown more than 25 touchdown passes in a season.

The Ravens defense still has great names but it is no longer special. And even they admit they are in the Super Bowl not in spite of Flacco but because of him.

"I'm a little biased because I've always been a Joe Flacco fan," Lewis said. "For Joe to do the things he did coming into this business his first five years; he's the winningest quarterback in playoff history on the road. That speaks volumes, because that means he has kept his head on the prize.

"Of course a lot of people had a lot of things to say about Joe, as his teammates, we've always been there for Joe."

"It feels good," Flacco said. "A lot of people in this league can't say they ever got to this point, so it definitely feels good to get here.

"We have a lot of guys on our team that have played long careers, and this will be their first time here. So we realize the opportunity and how special it is and plan to make the most it."

They have that chance because of Flacco.

And while a win would give Lewis a chance to go out on top, it could be just the beginning of Flacco's run as an elite quarterback.

Clarence E. Hill Jr.


Twitter: @clarencehilljr

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