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.