Things didn’t go as planned in the AFC in the divisional round. Or, more accurately, TV executives didn’t get the result they’d been drooling over all season. If those execs had their way, we’d be watching the winningest quarterback in playoff history, Tom Brady, take on his long-time nemesis Peyton Manning on Sunday, with a trip to New Orleans on the line.
Brady’s Patriots took care of business, and Manning did almost enough to get his Denver Broncos into the championship game. But another quarterback, one trying to force his way into the “Elite Quarterback Club,” which Brady and Manning are proud members of, ruined those best-laid plans.
That quarterback, Joe Flacco, likely earned himself a truckload of money with his performance Saturday. Deep into the fourth quarter, the free agent-to-be might have been having an average game numbers-wise, but he’d made throws into tight windows all day and had done more than enough to keep the Ravens in it.
With the clock running out on the Ravens’ season and Ray Lewis’ career, Flacco had the stones to heave the ball all 70 yards downfield for a momentum-shifting, season-saving and (possibly) legacy-changing touchdown to Jacoby Jones.
Flacco has found himself in an odd place for much of his career. The University of Delaware product has won a playoff game in all five of his seasons in the league—no small feat. Still though, he takes heat from media and fans who question his standing among his peers. Some of the criticism rings true; Flacco’s passing numbers are more or less unchanged from his second year to his fifth. He’s also exhibited inconsistent play uncharacteristic of a guy supposed to be a franchise quarterback.
Despite that, Flacco has led strong teams with very good offenses for the majority of his career. He hasn’t taken the Ravens to the Super Bowl, but plenty of the league’s current upper-crust quarterbacks took time to get there as well. It took Peyton nine years, Drew Brees nine years (and two teams) and Aaron Rodgers six years. Patience is a tough sell in today’s league, but it should be encouraged before passing judgement on a franchise quarterback.
The man Flacco has to beat on Sunday has about as bulletproof a reputation as possible. You already know Brady’s résumé: three-time champion, two-time regular season and Super Bowl MVP, married to Gisele. Aside from Bill Belichick, he’s the sole link remaining to the Patriots’ 2001 championship. That longevity is part of what makes Brady incredible—even at 35, he’s cranking out MVP-quality seasons. Brady already has made Super Bowl starts 10 years apart, second only to John Elway for most seasons between SB starts.
Getting his team to the precipice hasn’t been the problem for Brady as of late. Since Super Bowl XXXIX, his third ring, Brady has taken the Patriots to the AFC championship game four times and to the Super Bowl twice. But in those two Super Bowls especially, Brady hasn’t been able to make enough plays for his teams to lift the Lombardi. Last season, a ball just past Wes Welker’s fingertips helped to seal the Pats’ fate. Four years earlier, Brady couldn’t handle the Giants’ pressure and threw only one touchdown to end the season in which he set the league record for TD passes.
At this point, no one questions Brady’s greatness. He’s already on most everyone’s top-five list and will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He’s one of the greatest winners the league has seen, yet has fallen short in consecutive Super Bowl appearances. Brady doesn’t need to win another ring to prove his greatness, but it would certainly bolster his case as the greatest.
Of the two, Flacco is the one who needs to boost his résumé to cement his status. While his performance against Denver only further adds to his case for a huge contract from the Ravens, he’ll need to do more than advance to conference championship games to put himself in a class with the Bradys, Mannings and Rodgers of the world.
Don’t forget, Flacco had the Ravens in this exact position last year against the Patriots, and was a dropped touchdown, and then a missed field goal, away from going on to Super Bowl XLVI. Even though Flacco did everything he could to drag his team to victory, outplaying Brady in the process, that didn’t stop the criticism from coming throughout the past calendar year.
It’s reasonable to assume that for either the Patriots or Ravens to advance, one of these quarterbacks will have to make magic happen like Flacco did against Denver and like Brady has done throughout his career.
If it’s Brady, it would be another notch on the belt of one of the best to ever do it and a step toward the top of the all-time list of greats. If it’s Flacco, the win could be the first of many championship performances for a guy that’s been knocking on the door his whole career.
For one, a chance to add a few more diamonds to his crown. For the other, a chance to start forging his.