Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has had the kind of start to a career that many signal-callers can only dream of.
He hasn’t missed a start in his entire career, a span of 73 consecutive games.
He’s the only quarterback in the history of the National Football League to lead his team to a postseason berth in his first four seasons, and the Ravens are the only team that has made the tournament every year during that span.
However, despite the unprecedented success Flacco has experienced thus far in his career, he hasn’t yet brought Baltimore to the Super Bowl, and it’s readily obvious that he’s capable of much, much more.
In his fifth season, with his team needing him to do so, Joe Flacco must elevate his game to the next level.
It needs to start this Sunday night, in the hostile confines of Heinz Field against the rival Pittsburgh Steelers.
Here are the reasons why the time is now for Joe Flacco to make “The Leap.”
It’s his team
The Baltimore Ravens have become Joe Flacco’s team.
That was an unfathomable statement to make as early as this past January, when Ravens All-Pro safety Ed Reed, joining the SiriusXM Blitz on SiriusXM NFL Radio, questioned the play of his quarterback following the team’s divisional-round playoff victory over the Houston Texans.
But in Week 6 of this season, Flacco was thrust into the main leadership role when future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis suffered a season-ending triceps tear.
Few athletes have resonated more with a team and community than Lewis has in Baltimore. Lewis has been the face of the franchise for over 15 years. Whether right, wrong or indifferent, the Ravens have always been viewed as Lewis’ team.
Without Lewis, the onus falls squarely on Flacco to become the leader that the Ravens need. When they take the field on Sunday night to play at their biggest rival, it will be up to Joe Flacco to lead them to victory.
The Ravens defense isn’t what it used to be
Without Lewis, top corner Lardarius Webb (also lost for the season), and Terrell Suggs, who didn’t return from an off-season injury until Week 7, Baltimore’s defense, once a perennial powerhouse, hasn’t performed up to standard.
The unit is ranked just 25th on the season in total defense.
They’re 24th against the pass, and 26th against the run, a far cry from the dominant performances of past seasons.
They’re allowing 21.8 points per game, which is five points more than any other Baltimore defense has conceded in the Flacco era.
Simply put, the Baltimore Ravens cannot expect to make a deep run into the tournament on the strength of their defense alone.
It’s up to their quarterback, Joe Flacco, to put enough points on the scoreboard to win games and advance the team deep into January.
The brutal closing schedule
The Ravens, at 7-2 and in first place in the AFC North, have seven remaining contests.
Against exceptional quarterbacks, it will be up to Flacco to play exceptionally. If he doesn’t, the Ravens will stumble down the stretch, and face an early playoff exit in January.
I believe in Joe Flacco.
I started believing in Flacco after last year’s AFC title game, when he thoroughly outplayed Tom Brady. If Lee Evans could have just held onto the football, or if John Harbaugh hadn’t killed his kicker’s confidence, the Ravens would have made the Super Bowl.
That game proved to me that Joe Flacco was ready to take the next step. In the preseason, I picked Baltimore to represent the AFC in Super Bowl 47, mostly because of how strongly I felt about Flacco.
Flacco’s been good this season, but not great. His only real superlative performance was in Week 3, a Sunday night thriller where he led the Ravens to 10 late points, as Baltimore downed New England, 31-30. Aside from that game, Flacco has been fairly nondescript.
There is no longer any excuse for Flacco not to get the job done. It’s his team. You don’t hear any teammates questioning that fact any more.
The offense has finally been tailored to suit his big arm, with Torrey Smith developing into a true, impact player in Year 2, and Jacoby Jones stretching the field as the third option.
Will Joe Flacco make "The Leap" this season?
Flacco said in January that he felt he deserved more credit for the team’s success. This season, he’s either going to receive the accolades, or face the wrath of Ravens fans and the media.
For the remainder of the 2012 season, all eyes in Baltimore will be squarely on Joe Flacco.
So, Joe: make a statement on Sunday night. Beat the Pittsburgh Steelers while they’re without Ben Roethlisberger. Put the Ravens in a position to win the AFC North, and stay in the race for a first-round bye.
I believe Joe Flacco will make “The Leap.” It will start on Sunday night, when the Ravens beat the Pittsburgh Steelers.
I believe in Joe Flacco.
I have a feeling that, at the conclusion of this season, you will, too.
Nick Kostos is the executive producer of the "SiriusXM Blitz," hosted by Rich Gannon and Adam Schein, on SiriusXM NFL Radio. You can follow Nick on Twitter: @TheKostos.