DENVER — — Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco might have sealed his fame, future and fortune here Saturday night.
In a game where the Ravens were heavy underdogs — and against a team that rarely lost at Sports Authority Field at Mile High — Flacco out-performed future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning and led the Ravens to a 38-35 double-overtime victory in the AFC divisional playoffs.
The Ravens opted not to extend Flacco's contract before the start of the regular season, and he was so inconsistent during the regular season that few could predict what his future would be with the Ravens heading into the postseason.
But that may have changed Saturday night.
In a game where he was pitted against Manning, possibly the greatest quarterback to ever play the game, Flacco was brilliant. He launched a 70-yard touchdown pass to receiver Jacoby Jones with 31 seconds left in regulation to tie the game at 35-35.
The strength of Flacco's arm seemed to surprise Denver's defensive backs as one badly misjudged the ball. Was it bad defense? Was it luck?
Some of Flacco's other throws weren't lucky, but just perfect. The 59-yard touchdown pass he threw to receiver Torrey Smith in the first quarter was perfect, and the 32-yard touchdown pass he threw to Smith right before the end of the first half was perfectly located. On any throw needed, Flacco delivered — from the back shoulder passes to Anquan Boldin to the tight spirals over the middle to tight end Dennis Pitta.
Flacco completed 18 of 34 passes for 331 yards and three touchdowns and finished with a quarterback rating of 116.2. Manning completed 28 of 43 passes for 290 yards and he also had three touchdowns, but he had two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown.
Flacco has to play like this if the Ravens are to win the AFC championship and play in the Super Bowl. The defense has older players like linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed, and some who are still slowed by injuries like linebackers Terrell Suggs and Dannell Ellerbe.
But football is a young man's game and some of the Ravens' younger players on offense are entering their peak years like running back Ray Rice, right guard Marshal Yanda and Smith and Pitta.
And then there is Flacco.
He'll never be mentioned in the same breath with a Manning, Tom Brady or Drew Brees, but when he gets in a rhythm he can carry a team.
Flacco started off strong this season and seemed to have taken his game to the next level by teaming with new quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell, and running the no-huddle offense which Caldwell brought with him from Indianapolis.
But by midway through the season, Flacco was struggling on the road. Nearly a month ago, he had two turnovers and the Broncos crushed the Ravens, 34-17, in Baltimore.
But this week, the Ravens talked about how this game was going to be different and coach John Harbaugh had said the Ravens weren't going to be afraid to attack Denver.
They weren't going to back away from Denver's pass rush or cornerbacks Champ Bailey or Chris Harris. With offensive tackles Bryant McKinnie and Michael Oher keeping the pressure off Flacco, he ripped into Denver's secondary pretty good.
A year ago, Flacco played well in the postseason. He was solid last week against Indianapolis and then played well versus the Broncos.
Earlier this week, Flacco said the postseason was a time for legends to be born, and he may have started one Saturday. The postseason is also a time when stars make big plays and earn big pay checks.
If he continues, his time will come. The Ravens advanced Saturday because Flacco delivered.