Joe Flacco might be in only his second NFL season, but you can make a case that the moment has arrived for him to take the next step in his development as a truly elite NFL quarterback.
Not that he has done anything particularly wrong over these first two seasons. Quite the contrary. He busted down the door as a rookie and teamed with first-year head coach John Harbaugh to reach the AFC championship game, which is more than anyone could have reasonably expected in their first year together.
This season also has been a step forward in his accelerated pro football education. He has played every game again, and he has brought the Ravens to the threshold of a second straight postseason appearance.
No one could reasonably be disappointed in the progress Flacco has made since he was drafted out of Delaware, but the time is drawing close when he will no longer be judged as an overachieving young quarterback. In fact, the time might be today, and the place might be Heinz Field.
The Ravens need to defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers to shore up their playoff potential, and to accomplish that, Flacco will need to do something he really hasn't done nearly enough as Ravens quarterback. He'll need to beat one of the AFC's premier quarterbacks in a meaningful game.
If he wants to be considered among the league's elite, he needs to do the things those other quarterbacks routinely do to push their teams over the top in tough situations.
He already has proved he can run an offense and move the ball down the field. He already has shown he has the solid makeup to lead a team deep into the playoffs. There's just that one hole in his professional resume.
If you look back at last season, you'll see that "Joe Cool" won the games a good quarterback and a good team are supposed to win - including his playoff wins over the Miami Dolphins and Tennessee Titans - but he went 0-for-3 against the eventual Super Bowl champion Steelers and was not competitive in his first matchup against Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts.
This season, he has shown more flashes of brilliance, but his only victory over a playoff-bound team with an elite quarterback was back in Week 2 against the San Diego Chargers.
He played well and came up a little short against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, but he did not play particularly well in two losses to Carson Palmer and the rejuvenated Cincinnati Bengals, and could not get the ball into the end zone in a Week 11 loss to the Colts at M&T Bank Stadium. The Ravens did defeat the Steelers earlier this season, but that was with Dennis Dixon filling in for an injured Ben Roethlisberger.
With the postseason just a couple of weeks away, this would be a pretty good time for Flacco to get that monkey off his back. The game has a ton of playoff-related significance without being a sudden-death situation, and the Steelers aren't exactly invincible. They had lost five straight games when Roethlisberger pulled out that miraculous last-second victory over the Green Bay Packers last Sunday.
The Steelers still have something to play for. That win kept them alive in the wild-card hunt, but they - like the Ravens - have a banged-up secondary, which should provide some opportunities for Flacco to prove himself the kind of big-game quarterback he aspires to be.
It also wouldn't hurt the Ravens to warm up for the postseason with their first big win on the road since that Week 2 squeaker in San Diego. They aren't mathematically eliminated from the AFC North title hunt, but it's a near certainty that all their playoff games - if they get into the postseason - will be on the road. Just like last year.
Flacco already has shown he can perform under playoff pressure. The next step is to elevate his game and seize the moment before Roethlisberger or Manning or Brady beat him to it.
Listen to Peter Schmuck when he hosts "Sportsline" on WBAL (1090 AM) and check out "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.