Joe Flacco looked tired, or maybe he was just bored. It was hard to tell.
He has prepared for three AFC championship games now, so perhaps the thrill factor — not that Flacco would admit to experiencing such a thing — has worn off.
As excitable Ravens running back Ray Rice stood behind the lectern Wednesday answering questions from a packed auditorium, Flacco sat off to the side waiting his turn. He fidgeted with his hands and stared mostly into space. He looked up occasionally, if only to see whether Rice was almost finished. A black Ravens cap sat snugly on Flacco's head, a few days of facial-hair growth on his face.
Four days earlier, he had rallied the Ravens from a late deficit with a 70-yard touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones, outplayed the great Peyton Manning and beat the heavily favored Denver Broncos in frigid temperatures. The week before that, he helped end Indianapolis Colts phenom Andrew Luck's uplifting season, and he will try to do the same Sunday tonight to the New England Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady on the same stage as one of his best games as a pro.
Often described as understated and ordinary, he has been neither in the playoffs. Flacco's reputation as a big-game quarterback is growing, but as he heads into an AFC championship rematch this evening at Gillette Stadium, he probably needs to beat the Patriots and get the Ravens into the Super Bowl before he'll truly be accepted as one of the NFL's best quarterbacks.
"Your premise is right," said CBS broadcaster Phil Simms, a Super Bowl-winning quarterback with the New York Giants. "He has to win this week, win in the Super Bowl and play well before he gets the accolades and due that maybe he deserves."
Simms, of course, thinks that's wildly unfair.
"People can't admit they are wrong [and say], 'Maybe we looked at him the wrong way," he said. "Nobody can do that. For some reason, he can't be accepted. Maybe, he needs to take a class in how to interview better to come off as being charismatic and for people to say, 'He's got the it factor.' Last year, they couldn't get on him. They said he played well, but if they lose [Sunday night], he will take — if not all — but most of the blame for the Baltimore Ravens."
At times this season, Simms didn't feel that Flacco was as "sharp" as he had been in previous years.
Flacco's pocket presence was lacking and his decision-making was erratic.
But the fifth-year quarterback has emerged from a midseason malaise and his right arm has put the Ravens one game away from the Super Bowl.
Flacco has gone four games and thrown nine touchdown passes since his last interception, and in two playoff games, he has averaged 20.4 yards per completion.
Cool in the postseason
Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Namath, no stranger to postseason heroics, has never met Flacco, but he has watched him closely, observed his toughness and resilience, and understands why the quarterback out of Delaware already has seven playoff wins, five of them on the road.
"I'm a big fan of Joe because I know this has not all been good for him," Namath said. "He's had some tough times, yet he's steely, he's in command. Joe's been through every darn situation that you can imagine except, I guess, the Super Bowl."
The comments that mean the most to Flacco, who is a little amused and a lot indifferent about the media debate about where he ranks in the quarterback hierarchy, come from his teammates.
"Look at Joe's track record," Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said. "Joe has progressed every year. He is growing up right before our eyes, and no matter how big the game is, the game never gets too big for Joe. He has a great opportunity to etch his name into the record books of doing something in the playoffs that no quarterback has ever done. I'm just glad to be along for the ride."
Already in his third AFC championship game, Flacco is the first quarterback since the 1970 merger to lead a team into the playoffs in his first five seasons, and he has won at least one postseason game each year.
Flacco, who turned 28 Wednesday, has won an NFL-best 61 games since entering the league in 2008, and he has yet to miss a start. However, he has never passed for 4,000 yards, completed more than 64 percent of his passes or thrown more than 25 touchdown passes in a season.
His uneven play in the regular season holds him back from getting the type of credit his most ardent supporters say he deserves. However, his torrid play in the postseason is starting to change that.
He has led the Ravens to seven postseason wins in 11 tries. Mostly a game manager earlier in his career, he has thrown for 1,485 yards and 12 touchdowns against two interceptions in his past six playoff games. In two games this postseason, he has thrown for 613 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions, clearly outplaying Manning and Luck.
"I would like to think that I go out there and play consistently and approach everything the same way. I think that has been proven out. We've won a lot of football games around here," said Flacco, who scoffed at the notion that the game speeds up in the playoffs.
"There's no need to blow it out of proportion and get overwhelmed by that kind of thing. I think when you have that mindset, it is easy to go out there and stay calm and play in that moment."
Flacco's rookie contract expires after the season, and taking the Ravens to their second Super Bowl in team history would further strengthen his bargaining position.
However, the way he has carried himself during the past week, you would think that the Ravens were readying for a Week 10 matchup against the Cleveland Browns.
"That's just who he is," Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith said. "He doesn't flinch in any situation. You can trust a guy like that."
Ernie Accorsi, the former assistant general manager of the Baltimore Colts and later a general manager of both the Cleveland Browns and Giants, believes that quarterback is the most important position in sports.
In evaluating them, he looks beyond regular-season performance and leans on one criterion: "You judge a quarterback on his ability to take his team down the field and into the end zone with a championship on the line."
As shaky as he has looked at times during his career, Flacco has led 15 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or in overtime, two of them in the postseason.
However, he was denied his career-defining moment last January when Lee Evans couldn't hang on to a potential touchdown pass and then Billy Cundiff missed a game-tying field-goal attempt as the Ravens fell to the Patriots in the AFC championship game. The loss didn't hurt Flacco's postseason reputation.
"He's been incredible as a postseason quarterback," Accorsi said. "He made it and made it back. He is a big-game quarterback. He's won big game after big game. He's doing things that no one else ever did."
Accorsi was responsible for pulling off the 2004 draft-day trade that brought Eli Manning to the Giants. He watched Manning battle inconsistency in his first four regular seasons and be all but declared a bust. Manning was called mistake-prone, emotionless, uninspiring, inconsistent — all words that Flacco has heard during his time in Baltimore.
However, Manning got hot in the 2007 playoffs, led the Giants to three road victories and then engineered a late drive to beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl, thwarting New England's undefeated season.
Four years and plenty of criticism later, Manning did it again, beating the Patriots and winning his second Super Bowl Most Valuable Player award. Now, Manning's reputation as one of the game's clutch quarterbacks — and his legacy in New York — is secure.
"I really was close to the scene with Eli in New York," Namath said. "Until he won a championship, they were ready to run him out of town. Both Eli and Joe seem to have a similar demeanor, and they don't point the finger at someone else. From a team concept, their demeanor, the kinds of guys they are, the way they carry themselves is wonderful. But for entertainment, the fans sometimes want to see a different kind of charisma."
Flacco doesn't know Manning particularly well, but he does understand how a quarterback's reputation changes after he wins a Super Bowl.
"Was he all of a sudden a different quarterback because he won that one game?" Flacco said in September when asked about Manning. "It's kind of crazy how much we put on that one game, but that's the way it is. That's what you have to deal with."
A day after Flacco helped send his organization into the offseason, Broncos vice president of football operations John Elway, a Super-Bowl winning quarterback, said at a news conference that you "make your money in the regular season. You make your legacy in the postseason."
Whether he acknowledges it or not, Flacco is in the process of doing just that, and Sunday night against Bill Belichick and Brady, he has his best opportunity yet.
"If you have an outstanding team and a good quarterback, you will never be better than good. If you want to be great, the quarterback has to be great," Accorsi said. "I know [Trent] Dilfer won once, and that will happen. The Ravens had the best defense I've ever seen in 2000. But if you want to win consistently and be on the doorstep constantly, you need a franchise quarterback and Baltimore has one. There's no question about that."
In his fifth NFL season, Joe Flacco is starting to develop a reputation as a big-game quarterback. He's won seven playoff games in his career, including five on the road.
Date; Opponent; Comp-Att-Yds; TDs; INTs; QB Rating; Result;
1/04/09; at Miami; 9-23-135; 0; 0; 59.1; Win, 27-9;
1/10/09; at Tenn.; 11-22-161; 1; 0; 89.4; Win, 13-10;
1/18/09; at Pitt.; 13-30-141; 0; 3; 18.2; Loss, 23-14;
1/10/10; at New England; 4-10-34; 0; 1; 10.0; Win, 33-14;
1/16/10; at Indy; 20-35-189; 0; 2; 48.4; Loss, 20-3;
1/09/11; at K.C.; 25-34-265; 2; 0; 115.4; Win, 30-7;
1/15/11; at Pitt.; 16-30-125; 1; 1; 61.1; Loss, 31-24;
1/15/12; vs. Houston; 14-27-176; 2; 0; 97.1; Win, 20-13;
1/22/12; at New England; 22-36-306; 2; 1; 95.1; Loss, 23-20
1/06/13; vs. Indy; 12-23-282; 2; 0; 125.6; Win, 24-9
1/12/13; at Denver; 18-34-331; 3; 0; 116.2; Win, 38-35, 2OT
Total 11 games 164-304-2,145; 13; 8; 79.7; Record 7-4