The NFL history books might look back at the Baltimore Ravens' triumph in Super Bowl XLVII and base the narrative on retiring linebacker Ray Lewis and the inspiration he brought to a 10-win team to start the postseason.
Of course, that telling of the story would not be historically accurate.
The 2012-13 playoffs were all about Joe Flacco, a once-middling, unappreciated quarterback who used four postseason games to stage a historically significant set of performances—all while cementing his status as one of the NFL's elite players at his position.
Yes, that mythical, undefined and completely imaginary hierarchy of quarterbacks added its newest member Sunday night.
In throwing for 287 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in New Orleans, Flacco capped off a postseason run that would make the greatest of NFL quarterbacks envious.
His final stat line? Only 1,140 yards, 11 touchdowns, zero interceptions and a passer rating of 117.2—each figure representing the best of this postseason. In fact, no quarterback was within 300 yards, five touchdowns or 12 rating points of Flacco's final postseason numbers.
Mind you, the Ravens' much-maligned quarterback didn't just put up these stats against the Kansas City Chiefs and Jacksonville Jaguars of the football world. He became the postseason's preeminent player against the very best on the biggest stage.
Along the playoff path, Flacco beat two quarterbacking legends bound for the Hall of Fame someday (Peyton Manning, Tom Brady) and two others (Andrew Luck, Colin Kaepernick) who might just represent the very future of the position.
From Sunday, Jan. 6 to Sunday, Feb. 3, Flacco was the present. Without question, he was the best quarterback in the world over those 28 days.
A closer look at his postseason run supports that statement:
- Wild Card Round: Flacco completes just 12 passes, but he throws for 282 yards (12.3 yards per attempt), two scores and zero interceptions in a 24-9 win over the Indianapolis Colts. Trailing 10-6 heading into the half, Flacco tosses two scores over the final 30 minutes to lead the Ravens back. Baltimore overcomes nine penalties and two lost fumbles from Ray Rice to win comfortably.
- Divisional Round: Despite facing four different deficits, Flacco helps the Ravens rally in overtime and beat the Denver Broncos, 38-35. Among Flacco's 331 yards and three scores was the Ravens' defining moment of the postseason, a long heave that Jacoby Jones ran in for the tying, 70-yard score with 31 seconds left in regulation.
- AFC Championship Game: For the second straight season, Flacco thoroughly outplayed Brady at his own house in the AFC title game. This time around, the Ravens confidently strutted past the Patriots and into the Super Bowl. Flacco completed 21 passes for 240 yards, three scores and zero picks. All three of Flacco's touchdowns came in the second half as Baltimore cruised, 28-13.
- Super Bowl XLVII: The Ravens blazed out to leads of 21-3 and 28-6, thanks mostly to Flacco's three first-half touchdown passes. While Baltimore managed just two second-half field goals, Flacco made a handful of big throws to extend drives and stymie the 49ers' rally. The Ravens held on for a 34-31 win, and Flacco (22-of-33, 287 yards, three touchdowns) was named Super Bowl MVP.
For one postseason, Flacco was the game's best quarterback. There was maybe one person who foresaw such a finish, and it was Flacco himself, 10 months earlier.
Before this season, Flacco took flak for telling a Baltimore radio station that he thought he was the best quarterback in the NFL. Flacco never used the word "elite," but his words made that inquiry a moot point.
Asked by WNST in April if he believes he's a top-five quarterback, Flacco responded (via Sports Radio Interviews):
Without a doubt. What do you expect me to say? … I assume everybody thinks they’re a top-five quarterback. I mean, I think I’m the best. I don’t think I’m top five, I think I’m the best. I don’t think I’d be very successful at my job if I didn’t feel that way.
Across the sporting world, Flacco was ridiculed and mocked for his honest (and frankly, perfectly acceptable) answer. Ten months later, Flacco got in the last laugh.
Joe Flacco was 22-of-33 for 287 yards and three TDs. How's that for elite?— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) February 4, 2013
Against the 49ers, Flacco threw darts to every level of the route tree, stepped up and around a number of effective pressures and made arguably the game's biggest play on a decision few will likely remember amongst the swan song of Lewis, Jacoby Jones' heroics and the lights going out in the Superdome.
Facing 3rd-and-inches late in the fourth quarter, the Ravens went against the easy decision to run the football and keep the clock moving. No, John Harbaugh and Jim Caldwell went to their elite quarterback to extend the game's most important drive.
Flacco pounced on the opportunity, throwing a back-shoulder strike to Anquan Boldin that moved the chains and allowed the Ravens to both sap more clock and kick an all-important field goal with just over four minutes to go.
The throw was a fitting cap to the collection of big throws Flacco made throughout the Super Bowl.
Flacco's first score against the 49ers was a perfectly placed throw to Boldin, who ran a quick move up the seam to create the needed separation. Flacco went over the linebacker and between the safety to put the Ravens up, 7-0.
On the Ravens' next drive, Flacco deftly evaded the blitz of Aldon Smith—a man with 19.5 sacks in 2012—and somehow connected with Boldin for 30 yards despite making the throw on the run.
Later, Flacco connected with Jones on a 56-yard score that will likely go down as one of the Super Bowl's defining moments.
Harbaugh said afterwards (via the Associated Press) that Flacco showed he had the "guts of a burglar."
Flacco did make one thing perfectly clear: This postseason performance was no reincarnation of Trent Dilfer, the starting quarterback for the first Ravens' title who was nothing more than a caretaker for the offense. This wasn't some fluke performance, bound together by luck or perfect circumstances.
By the time the confetti was flying in New Orleans, Flacco had cemented his status as one of the game's elite quarterbacks. The stats and records don't lie.
Flacco ended his postseason in the same breath as Joe Montana, who threw for 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions during the 49ers' run to the Super Bowl in 1989-90. Only Flacco and Montana have thrown that many touchdowns without an interception in one postseason, and only Flacco has thrown for 1,000 yards, 10 touchdowns and zero picks in one playoff run.
He ended his postseason winning his 63rd overall game in five years, the most by one quarterback since the start of the 2008 season. The last three—and maybe the most difficult three—came as underdogs against teams with a combined 39 wins this season.
He ended his postseason with a ninth career postseason win, tied for the most ever by one quarterback over his first five seasons. Only Tom Brady's nine can match Flacco's first five years.
Is Joe Flacco an "elite" NFL quarterback?
Maybe Joe Flacco doesn't have the regular-season stats that skeptics want in an "elite" quarterback. And maybe his personality doesn't exactly lend itself to the adulation of a big-time NFL star.
But there's no more denying the historically significant run Flacco just put together on the NFL's biggest stage. No one can take away the regular-season wins and the postseason wins. Few quarterbacking peers can match the volume of important throws Flacco made in this postseason.
Hopefully, the story of Super Bowl XLVII doesn't run tangent with the going-out party for Lewis. Such a narrative wouldn't do justice to the postseason that just played out.
The protagonist in this still-hard-to-believe tale is unquestionably Flacco, who played the hero role admirably and without fanfare.
Now, the Super Bowl MVP can rightfully proclaim himself a member of the league's elite quarterbacks.
He certainly earned it.