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As old playoff magic eludes Patriots' Tom Brady, Ravens' Joe Flacco continues to dazzle

Tom Brady used to Mr. Big Game. But no one has been a bigger postseason winner recently than Joe Flacco.

Joe Flacco's concept of playing quarterback in the NFL was shaped by watching highlights of Joe Montana take the San Francisco 49ers to Super Bowl titles and by watching Tom Brady begin his career with remarkable postseason success.

Over four seasons starting in 2001, Brady led the New England Patriots to victories in each of his first 10 playoff games, including three Super Bowl appearances.

"The cool thing about it is, Tom was playing for who-knows-how-many years before I got here, and I was in high school, sitting there watching him and those guys win Super Bowls," Flacco said. "I'm playing against guys, not just quarterbacks, that I've spent a good amount of my time remembering."

When the Ravens and Patriots meet Saturday afternoon in an AFC divisional-round playoff game at Gillette Stadium, Flacco will be the quarterback on a dominant postseason run. He has directed the Ravens to five straight playoff victories, throwing 13 touchdown passes and no interceptions over that stretch.

While Brady became known as a big-game quarterback when the Ravens signal caller was still in high school, Flacco's reputation as a clutch postseason performer grows by the week.

"I think that's what defines a quarterback," Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith said. "I think that's what helps and hurts you. That's why Tom Brady is one of the best — what he's done in the postseason. And I think Joe, I heard the stat after the Pittsburgh game — all these touchdowns, no interceptions. I was like, 'Wow.' Those numbers don't happen very often."

Of the starting quarterbacks for the four remaining AFC playoff teams, Brady and the Denver Broncos' Peyton Manning are former Most Valuable Player award winners and future Hall of Famers. The Indianapolis Colts' Andrew Luck is viewed as the league's top young quarterback.

As measured by regular-season numbers or Pro Bowl berths, Flacco, 29, does not compare. But no NFL quarterback has been a bigger postseason winner over the past seven seasons.

He has won 10 of 14 playoff games, two more than Brady and Manning's combined total in that span. Flacco's seven road playoff wins are two more than any other quarterback in NFL history.

"I feel Joe's confidence since I've been here, but I can honestly say, this past week, working with him through the first playoff game, I could see the level rise a little bit," Ravens offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak said. "I just think he works and plays and lives for these situations, and I just think his record speaks for itself in what he's been able to do. A lot of guys want the ball in their hands at this time, and he's one of those guys. He says, 'Put it on me.' That's a great feeling as a coach, but it's a great feeling in the room with the team."

Reversal of fortune

Flacco and Brady predictably downplayed their matchup this week, but it was too enticing of a storyline not to mention: two Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks leading their respective teams, one trying to recapture past playoff magic, the other hoping to maintain it.

Flacco and Brady have met in the playoffs three times; the Ravens have won twice, a fact both teams say has no bearing on Saturday's game.

Since losing Super Bowl XLII to the New York Giants in 2008, the Patriots are just 4-5 in the postseason and Brady has been pretty ordinary for a quarterback who won 14 of his first 17 playoff appearances. He has thrown 17 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions in his past nine postseason games, but six of those touchdowns came in a divisional-round win over the Broncos in 2012.

His recent playoff struggles have led some to suggest that the window of opportunity for the 37-year-old to win an elusive fourth ring with the Patriots, who are 10 years removed from their last Super Bowl victory, is closing.

"I mean, every year is important," Brady said. "We're always trying to win the last game of the year. We all have high expectations, but you've got to go out there and earn it. It's not easy, and this is a first step for us. This is a week where we can really try to make an impact on this season. We've worked pretty hard to get to this point."

Brady and Flacco are the only quarterbacks in NFL history to start 14 playoff games in their first seven seasons, but they've taken different paths to postseason glory. Brady's success was immediate, with Super Bowl titles in three of his first four seasons as a starter. In his first 10 playoff starts, Brady threw 14 touchdown passes and just three interceptions.

Flacco made the playoffs in his first five NFL seasons, but he was more game manager than gunslinger. He threw just four touchdown passes and had seven interceptions over his first seven playoff appearances, winning four.

The turning point came in an AFC championship-game loss to the Patriots in 2012. Flacco completed 22 of 36 passes for 306 yards, two touchdowns and one interception, and put the potential game-winning score right in the chest of wide receiver Lee Evans, who failed to hold on. He hasn't had a postseason interception since that game, a streak of 166 passes.

"I don't think it's limited to any particular situation. Joe Flacco has been a good player since he came into the league," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "We've played them early in the year. Some seasons we've played them at the end of the year. We've played them in the middle of the year. He's good every year, beginning, middle or end of the season. You could probably say the same thing about Brady."

'Unflappable' Flacco

Flacco, though, has taken his game to a new level in the Ravens' past two postseasons. His two-touchdown, no-interception performance in a 30-17 victory over the Steelers in Saturday's wild-card round marked his fifth straight playoff game with a passer rating above 100, the fourth-longest streak in NFL history.

"Joe Flacco is unflappable," former Steelers coach and current CBS analyst Bill Cowher said. "He's just got a real sense of calm. He threw the ball so accurately last weekend. He always throws a great deep ball."

The performance prompted former NFL scout John Middlekauff to tweet, "Id take Flacco over Peyton in January any day," and led Ravens coach John Harbaugh to reiterate his belief that Flacco is the best quarterback in the NFL.

Flacco seemed almost embarrassed by the praise, and continued to say he doesn't feel much different in the playoffs than he does in the regular season.

"I'm going out there and playing a football game and doing the best I can to put everybody in a position to do good things," he said. "I think we've just come together and we've played good as a unit when we've had the chance to. I think we're a good team, so if you put us in enough situations and you put us in tough situations, then we're going to react well to them."

The Ravens will be in another tough situation Saturday. The Patriots have lost just three of 14 home playoff games under Belichick. Flacco has been the opposing quarterback for two of them, one more line on the quarterback's growing postseason resume.

"I'm always bringing up Joe Flacco, but he's a very important piece to our team," Ravens cornerback Lardarius Webb said. "The way he comes out and he performs, the way he's prepared, we look up to that. And when he comes out and plays that well, we expect to win. We feel comfortable going on the road when we're going on the road with Joe Flacco."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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Baltimore Sun staff writer Childs Walker contributed to this article.

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