Joe Flacco is easily having his best postseason this January, and his elite play has helped Ray Lewis and the Baltimore Ravens appear in Super Bowl XLVII.
In three postseason games, Flacco has tossed eight touchdowns to zero picks and is averaging 284.3 passing yards. Unsurprisingly, Baltimore has put up 100 total points and defeated Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in consecutive matchups.
Even more impressive is Flacco's postseason career, which consists of five straight appearances and an 8-4 record. Six of those eight victories have come on the road as well, the most ever according to ESPN.com.
And in an article by Luke Hughes of the New England Sports Network:
“I’m a little biased, because I’ve always been a Joe Flacco fan,” [Ray] Lewis said. “For Joe to do the things he did coming into this business his first five years — he’s the winningest quarterback, I think, in playoff history on the road. That speaks volumes, because that means he always kept his head on the prize."
The respect may not be fully there yet, but it should be. And in two weeks’ time, Flacco will prove yet again just how clutch he can be and take that elusive elite title once and for all.
The distinction of this year compared to previous; however, comes in the form of decision-making.
Although Flacco's completion percentage is just 54.8 percent through three games, he is averaging 16.7 yards per completion. Courtesy of playmaking receivers in Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith, Flacco is also assisted by tight end Dennis Pitta.
This group of targets is also the best Flacco has seen during his young career, but it's his strong arm and improved pocket patience that has continued to pay dividends. The end result is an AFC title and taking that next step into the NFL's upper echelon of quarterbacks.
Here, we break down Flacco's development in a nutshell. It's quite fascinating, as the former first-round pick has taken his playoff ability to another level with more experience.
Note: All screen-caps are courtesy of NFL.com's Game Rewind.
Stage One: 2008 and 2009
Regarding Flacco's previous playoff history, consider him a product of gradual development. He has progressed through three forms, the first of which occurred in 2008 and 2009. There, Flacco tossed just one touchdown to six picks in his first five playoff contests.
During his second season, Baltimore lost to the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Divisional Round. Flacco went 20-of-35 with two picks—both coming in the fourth quarter—and no touchdowns.
What we see here is Flacco telegraphing his pass. Given that this is his second pro season, though, the process of developing remains in motion. Indy rushes five defenders and sits back in a Cover 2.
Flacco immediately looks to his left and is provided with solid protection.
Now, toward the middle, but still receiving a nice pocket from the offensive line.
And finally, back to his left with the pocket still holding up nicely.
Unfortunately, he failed to look off the safety by not even acknowledging the right side of his receiving options. Not to mention the pass protection remained solid, but he gets impatient and tosses one without stepping into it. You can clearly see how tall Flacco is when releasing the pass.
As expected, the pass is underthrown and intercepted.
On the bright side, the development continued over the next two postseasons.
Stage Two: 2010 and 2011
The next stage, 2010 and 2011, his experience took over and led to seven touchdown passes to only two picks. Not to mention a 60.6 completion percentage during this playoff time frame.
Last season, the Ravens lost to the New England Patriots 23-20. Flacco, however, was solid with over 300 yards, two touchdowns (one pick) and a 61.1 completion percentage in his second trip to the conference championship game.
Most impressive at this stage was converting two third-downs on Baltimore's final drive that got kicker Billy Cundiff in range. The first came on 3rd-and-5 where he connected with Anquan Boldin for 13 yards.
Just like the Colts on the previous play, Flacco sees Cover 2 from the safeties and man-to-man underneath.
Only this time, Flacco steps up into the pocket. Although he's nearly impossible to see from this far back, Flacco puts himself in position to make a throw.
A better angle here from behind the Pats defense, Flacco steps into this throw while pressing is coming from Rob Ninkovich. The narrow passing lane guides the rock to Boldin for a key first down.
This is the minute disparity between the Stage One Flacco and Stage Two. He steps inside the pocket and darts the ball to a spot where only his intended receiver can make a play.
Stage Three: 2012
Flacco has now reached the pinnacle and is one victory away from pro football immortality. That idea here is patience, because not every single quarterback develops at the same rate.
Fortunately for the Ravens, Flacco maintained postseason progression and went 21-of-36 for 240 yards and three touchdowns against New England on Sunday. All three occurred in the second half.
The first score came with less than seven minutes to go in the third quarter. Flacco connected with Pitta to put Baltimore ahead 14-13, and the Ravens never looked back.
This play also displays everything a team needs from its franchise signal-caller.
Flacco takes the shotgun snap and looks directly to his left. Keep an eye on the middle linebacker circled in red.
Then to the middle. Doing so is also required, because Flacco surveying freezes the middle 'backer from getting into a passing lane.
Knowing there's man coverage across the board, he literally reads New England like a book, from left to right. Making a final read, Flacco spots Pitta breaking his route and getting minimal separation from the defender.
This is how small of a window Flacco was given when marking this pass. It's the difference between six points and potentially settling for a field goal. A distinction so minuscule, that it significantly impacts the game's complexion and ultimately, the outcome.
What makes Flacco appealing prior to this AFC title game, though, was that he kept winning despite not putting up the most dominant of numbers.
Without question, he is backed by a veteran defense and reliable rushing attack, but the Ravens have seen a winning season and playoff appearance every year since he was put under center.
That level of consistency warrants recognition, especially in today's NFL, where offenses rely so heavily on the quarterback's development. Plus, according to Sam Mellinger of the Kansas City Star, Patriots defensive backs Steve Gregory and Devin McCourty gave Flacco much respect:
“He is one of the elite quarterbacks,” Patriots safety Steve Gregory says. “I know he gets a lot of flak for not being that type of guy, but he is.”
“He understands what is there,” Patriots defensive back Devin McCourty says. “What he can do and what he can’t do.”
In short, John Harbaugh and Baltimore's patience has simply paid off, because Flacco is now an elite quarterback, no debate.
Follow John Rozum on Twitter.