Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco celebrates with receiver Anquan… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco knows this is the time of the season when NFL legends are made, but also the time when they get paid.
Flacco's contract expires at the end of the season. Before it started, he said he thought he was an elite quarterback who demanded elite money.
He hasn't played that way in 2012. Despite throwing for a career-high 3,817 yards, 22 touchdowns (second most in his career) and tying a career low with 10 interceptions, Flacco's play has been inconsistent
He has been the same old Joe.
But that can change starting Saturday. If Flacco can play well in Denver and then the following week to get the Ravens to the Super Bowl, he'll hold the trump card once negotiations start.
Flacco has to play well for the Ravens to advance. He has talked about being an elite quarterback, but of the eight remaining starters from the NFC and AFC, Flacco has the seventh-best QB rating — 49ers starter Colin Kaepernick hasn't registered enough attempts to be rated.
Flacco will face one elite player Saturday in Peyton Manning, and another is New England's Tom Brady, whom the Ravens could play a week later. If the Ravens get to the Super Bowl, Flacco could be facing Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers or Atlanta's Matt Ryan.
Ryan isn't in the elite class, but he turned in strong numbers this season as the Falcons earned the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
"This is where great teams are born and great players are born, coming up big in the playoffs and winning a lot of games," Flacco said. "Having said that, you can just feel the energy around the city and obviously when we had the home game last week, you could feel how into it everybody was. So, I think it's pretty easy for us to see how excited everybody is, and we're excited ourselves."
Flacco has to carry the Ravens. It's no longer on the shoulders of the defense. It used to be years ago, but that group has gotten too old in certain positions and too young in others.
It's different on offense. The Ravens have shuffled their offensive line. They have speed on the outside in Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones and two possession receivers to control the middle in Anquan Boldin and tight end Dennis Pitta.
Flacco is the X-factor. It's going to come down to how well No. 5 plays.
When the Ravens were crushed by Denver, 34-17, nearly a month ago, Flacco committed two turnovers in the first half that led to a 17-0 Broncos lead. He had a quarterback rating of 34.9 after the first two periods and completed only 20 of 40 passes for 254 yards in the game. He finished with a QB rating of 76.5.
No one is putting the blame entirely on Flacco for the loss, but a quarterback can't play that poorly against such a balanced team like Denver — not with Manning as the opposing quarterback.
"It stuck with me a couple minutes, and then I moved on and went out there and played some more snaps," Flacco said of his interception at the end of the first half, which was returned 98 yards for a touchdown. "And then when we lost, it stuck with me for a couple minutes again, and then we started getting ready for the next game and we went out and won it. Stuff like that happens. We didn't play well enough to win the first game.
"Stuff like that happens sometimes, and believe me, I'm the last guy that wants it to happen. But you've got to go out there and keep your head up and play the game, and I think I did a great job of rebounding from that, and I think our whole team did. That's why we are where we are right now. … We feel confident, and I think we should."
It's good that Flacco is confident, but that's not the sentiment around Baltimore. Flacco was hot early in the season running the no-huddle offense. His game appeared to be at a higher level with the addition of quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell, who ran the no-huddle when he was the coach in Indianapolis.
But Flacco started struggling again, especially on the road. His mechanics became sloppy and he was booed at home when the Ravens lost to Denver.
Since then he has played reasonably well, but no one knows which Flacco will show up Saturday. The Ravens like to point out that Flacco is the first quarterback since the 1970 merger to play in and win at least one playoff game in his first five seasons.
That's impressive, but I'm more impressed with the fact that when Flacco produces a quarterback rating of at least 95, the Ravens are 33-4, and when the rating is 110 or better, the Ravens are 18-2.
A year ago when Flacco struggled against Houston in a playoff game, Ed Reed criticized the quarterback and he played extremely well the following week against New England.
No one is saying a word this year, but they shouldn't. If Flacco wants to be shown the money, he has to show the production in crunch time against elite quarterbacks.
That starts Saturday in Denver.