Five years into his career, Joe Flacco might have finally thrown a career-defining pass.
His 70-yard touchdown strike to Jacoby Jones with 31 seconds left tied the Ravens with the Denver Broncos, showing exactly what Flacco could do in crunch time. Flacco earned himself a lot of money with this performance.
Gauging Flacco's performance and expectations has always been hard, if not impossible. For every 300-yard, three-touchdown performance is a 150-yard, two-turnover performance. For every brilliant touchdown is a missed opportunity. The only word that consistently defines Flacco is inconsistent.
In the past two games, Flacco has begun to change that word to clutch.
This shouldn't come as a surprise to close observers: Flacco has been dynamite in the playoffs three years straight. Since 2011, Flacco has exceed a passer rating of 95.0 in six of seven playoff starts. In that span, he's thrown 12 touchdowns to just two interceptions.
What makes Flacco's performance even more impressive was the Ravens' game plan, which was incredibly demanding of the quarterback.
Most of Flacco's throws were downfield strikes into tight windows, and this was by design. Offensive Coordinator Jim Caldwell trusts the Ravens receivers to come down with jump balls, and Flacco put them where they needed to be. Few quarterbacks can do that.
Bill Simmons of Grantland.com summarizes Flacco's performance well:
The whole "Joe Flacco just outplayed Peyton Manning in a legendary road playoff win" thing is just starting to settle in for me.— Bill Simmons (@BillSimmons) January 13, 2013
As great as Flacco has been in these playoffs, he remains at best an average passer by NFL standards. His accuracy is suspect when he throws off his back foot, which he does too often; he can be too conservative on third down and he will never lead any kind of consistent offense. Those are Flacco's limitations, but they don't need to limit this team.
The reason Flacco's limitations won't limit this team is because of his biggest strength. His character.
You’re the General now. Lead us to a victory. You will lead us today. I’m just here to facilitate things.
When Ray Lewis tells you to step up as a leader, you do it. Flacco did. His even keel under pressure keyed the Ravens today, and his passes put them over the top. That was a franchise performance from a franchise quarterback.
The Ravens can still do some things to protect their investment when they re-sign Flacco long-term.
They still need to invest in the offensive line, which excelled today but features two rapidly aging performers. Bryant McKinnie should have been starting all season, as he has been excellent in the playoffs. He is 33 years old, though, and center Matt Birk is 36. The Ravens must commit to protecting Flacco even better this offseason.
They still need to make that running game more consistent. That will involve both running the ball more often and more effectively.
And don't forget: the Ravens' downfield attack is hardly quarterback-friendly. Flacco attempted the second-most deep attempts in the NFL this season with 92 such attempts. On those throws, Flacco has accumulated 11 touchdowns with no interceptions, but he's only completed 38 percent of them. That's one big reason for Flacco's pedestrian completion percentage.
Those are some of the reasons raw numbers have never defined Flacco. What defines him is the wins, and as long as he keeps producing them, Flacco will be the Ravens' franchise.
What the franchise quarterback will earn remains to be seen. He won't make the $18 million that Peyton Manning made this season, but he should make more than Kevin Kolb's six-year, $62.1 million contract.
The negotiations will be long and intense, but keeping Flacco in purple and black is the right choice. He proved it yet again in Denver.