FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh gathered his team together at halftime and gave them a bit of focused analysis and direct instruction about how they were going to beat the best organization of this era.
"We didn't come here to be conservative,” Harbaugh said, referring to an offense that had produced only seven points and a paltry 130 yards of total offense. "We're going to attack.”
In a transitive way, that pointed the responsibility of getting to Super Bowl XLVII directly at Joe Flacco. The quarterback delivered by going 15-of-24 for 159 yards and three touchdowns after intermission as Baltimore beat the New England Patriots, 28-13, in the AFC championship game.
The numbers only speak to the surface of what Flacco accomplished Sunday night and, in a grander sense, throughout the playoffs. Flacco completed a playoff run to the Super Bowl, pitting the Ravens against the Jim Harbaugh-led San Francisco 49ers on Feb. 3, that features wins over Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning and now Tom Brady. That's the No. 1 overall pick in the past NFL draft and two future Hall of Famers. Heady stuff for a guy who has often been viewed as more detriment than asset.
"Joe Flacco, wherever you're going, I'm following you,” Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs shouted in the locker room after the game. "You need Secret Service? I'm your man.”
At the other end of the locker room, offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie could do nothing but laugh at the list of quarterbacks Flacco had vanquished over the past three weeks.
"What do I think of that?” McKinnie said as he caught his breath from the loud laugh and repeated the question. "That's some pretty tough competition. It's like we say around here: You give Joe time, he can beat anybody. He knows it. We all know. Now maybe other people will realize it.”
On Sunday, Flacco took the cue from his coach and completed the journey to elite status by torching New England. Rather than the passive gameplan the Ravens tried to execute in the first half by taking what the Patriots gave them and playing the percentages, Baltimore rode the rocket arm of Flacco.
After throwing only three passes beyond 20 yards in the first half, each of Flacco's first four throws were direct challenges to New England's soft coverage. Even though he completed only one of them and the drive ended without a score, the tone was set.
Instead of kowtowing to Patriots coach Bill Belichick's desire to take away wide receivers Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith (not to mention tight end Dennis Pitta), the Ravens basically said, We do what we do.
"We realized that we just needed to put some pressure on them in that way,” Flacco said in his usually understated tone. "In the first half, we were probably a little bit run-heavy and they did a good job of stopping it, and we came out in the second half and decided to go with what we went with.”
Flacco then echoed Harbaugh: "We didn't come all the way here to play it safe and hope to win.”
Hoping is for suckers. You don't beat a team that had been 67-0 when leading at halftime at home with Brady at quarterback by hoping.
On the next two possessions, Flacco kept up the barrage. He hit Pitta for a 22-yard gain. He threw deep again two plays later. On the next play, with the Patriots' defense bailing out, Flacco threw underneath for Ray Rice for a 15-yard gain. That drive eventually went for 87 yards, ending in a Pitta touchdown reception that put the Ravens up 14-13.
Baltimore followed that up with two more touchdown drives that allowed them to seize control and let the Ravens defense finish New England off.
This is what attacking downfield does when you have a guy like Flacco. It establishes fear. The Patriots had plenty of that coming into this game, which is why they went to such elaborate lengths to make it look like they were playing deep on every play. That strategy was accentuated after cornerback Aqib Talib went down with an apparent hamstring injury (he didn't return).
The Patriots did everything they could to make it look like they were ready for the deep stuff. Unfortunately, the Patriots remain severely undermanned in the secondary, particularly with Talib (a midseason trade acquisition) out of the game.
That circumstance encouraged Harbaugh to demand more of Flacco.
"Joe is capable of turning around a game,” Harbaugh said in the locker room, his hair still glistening with sweat and his face filled with a look of excitement. "We just had to put him in that position.”
This is what the Ravens had done in each of their previous two playoff games. Against Denver, Flacco connected on touchdown passes of 32, 59 and 70 yards, the last of those a desperation heave over the entire Broncos defense. Against Indianapolis, Flacco hit two big throws to Boldin to put the game away in the second half.
With that, Flacco now has three consecutive games in which he has posted a quarterback rating of better than 100.0. He had only done that once before in his career (2010 regular season), and had only an 86.3 rating for his career. Through three playoff games this season, he has eight touchdown passes and zero interceptions. He entered the playoffs with less than a 2-to-1 ratio for his entire career.
If that doesn't scream elite, well, what do you want?
"It's amazing the stuff that Joe puts up with and doesn't let it bother him, ever,” tight end Ed Dickson said. "There are times that I want to yell at people for him, but he never lets it get to him. Joe is the same way whether we're up 50 or down 50.”
That is to say that Flacco is confident to an unflappable level.
"It's a cliché to say things don't bother a guy, but that's exactly how Joe is,” said offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell, who took over with three weeks left in the season after Cam Cameron was fired. That move was controversial, to say the least.
At the time, all eyes (and fingers) were aimed at Flacco. There was a perception that if this move didn't work, it meant that Flacco, whose contract expires at the end of the season, was the problem. Flacco was grilled by reporters in the aftermath of the move.
He answered all the questions with the anxiety of a sleeping hippo. Laconic isn't just a description for Flacco, it's seemingly a way of life. Yet don't be fooled – unemotional is not to be confused with lacking confidence.
"Trust me, Joe has confidence,” Caldwell said. "He has plenty of self-esteem. He knows he's good and can do whatever you need. He doesn't need anybody to pat him on the back.”
Rather, he just needs a coach who will tell everybody to give him the ball and get out of the way.
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