Joe Flacco Peaking at Right Time Gives Baltimore Ravens Edge in AFC North

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystDecember 4, 2016

BALTIMORE, MD - DECEMBER 4: Quarterback Joe Flacco #5 of the Baltimore Ravens passes the ball against the Miami Dolphins in the first quarter at M&T Bank Stadium on December 4, 2016 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Matt Hazlett/Getty Images)
Matt Hazlett/Getty Images

Is Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco elite? 

This question is often sarcastically posed on social media to point out Flacco's inconsistencies even though he's shown flashes of brilliance throughout his career. Those flashes re-appeared Sunday during a 38-6 victory against the Miami Dolphins at M&T Bank Stadium. 

Flacco isn't elite, and he doesn't need to be. All he needs to do is make plays while limiting mistakes. As long as he does, the AFC North is available for the Ravens to claim. 

If his latest performance is any indication, the 31-year-old signal-caller found his rhythm just in time to complement the Ravens' ferocious defense and exceptional special teams during the franchise's latest playoff push.

Flacco shredded the Dolphins secondary for 381 passing yards and four touchdowns.

"He was lights out," veteran wide receiver Steve Smith Sr. said, per ESPN.com's Jamison Hensley. "We go as he goes."

His play resembled his approach during the Ravens' Super Bowl XLVII victory. The Delaware product made clutch throw after clutch throw with an 11-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio throughout the playoffs before he raised the Lombardi Trophy and earned Super Bowl MVP honors. 

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Over the next three-and-a-half seasons, Flacco struggled to experience similar success. Even against some of the league's worst pass defenses, the quarterback didn't perform as well as he did Sunday. 

A week after Flacco described the offense as "conservative" after a 19-14 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals, offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg responded with an aggressive approach and increased tempo. 

"The idea was to keep the pressure on them and score as many points as possible," head coach John Harbaugh said, per Hensley

In fact, the ninth-year signal-caller provided a new career high with 36 completions, according to Ryan Mink of the Ravens official site, and set a NFL season high as well, according to ESPN Stats & Info: 

This is the best version of Flacco seen over the last two years. 

"Flacco's 119.2 quarterback rating was his best mark since Nov. 24, 2014, in New Orleans," Mink noted. "His four touchdown passes were the most since he threw five against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Oct. 12, 2014."

For the quarterback, his play has less to do with sustainable success and more to do with developing a hot hand at the right time. The former first-round pick is always going to be a streaky passer.

In order to be successful in the playoffs, a team must peak at the right time. The Ravens appear to be doing so. 

A quarterback's play isn't the only indicator. Flacco's improvement builds onto an already dominant defense and always reliable special teams. 

When the offense sputters, Harbaugh can turn to one of the game's best weapons. Kickers usually aren't described as such, but Justin Tucker is by far the NFL's best specialist. As the rest of the league's kickers struggle to adapt to new rules, Tucker goes about his business and boots 50-yard field goals with ease. 

His long-distance accuracy has reached an all new level, per ESPN Stats & Info: 

The kicker extends the field for Baltimore's offense and keeps the team in games even when Flacco and Co. aren't clicking. 

Defensively, the Ravens entered Sunday's contest ranked as the league's second-best unit by giving up only 297.8 yards per game. The team's average improved after it surrendered 277 yards to the Dolphins. 

Baltimore created three turnovers and sacked quarterback Ryan Tannehill two times. It's important for the entire unit, particularly the secondary, to jell and work cohesively—as seen during Lardarius Webb's first-quarter interception, courtesy of the NFL's Twitter feed: 

Good quarterback play, a stingy defense and strong special teams play will take any team a long way, but teams that succeed in the postseason usually are the healthiest, too. 

After a year-and-a-half of bad luck, Harbaugh's squad finally looked like the one general manager Ozzie Newsome envisioned. The injured reserve no longer dominates the conversation. Instead, multiple key players have returned as the regular season wanes. 

Veteran outside linebacker Elvis Dumervil rebounded from a foot injury that kept him out most of the season. The team's top cornerback, Jimmy Smith, was back on the field for the first time since Week 10 after dealing with a back injury.

Flacco is just happy to have Dennis Pitta back after the tight end dealt with serious concerns regarding a lingering hip injury. Pitta found the end zone twice Sunday—his first touchdowns since the 2013 campaign. 

"I don't care what's [sic] he's been through," Flacco joked, per the Baltimore Sun's Jeff Zrebiec. "I just want him on [the] field. He's a special football player."

Plus, the offensive line finally looked whole after left tackle Ronnie Stanley, guard Marshal Yanda and right tackle Rick Wagner missed time earlier in the year. The big boys up front don't receive enough attention even when they're playing well. But the group's improved health has a lot to do with the quarterback and offense's overall success. 

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"It looked like you wanted it to look," Harbaugh said, per Zrebiec

It's hard to argue with the coach after Baltimore accumulated 496 yards. Capturing an AFC North crown will be difficult, though.

Currently, the 7-5 Ravens hold a tiebreaker over the Pittsburgh Steelers due to a better division record, but the two teams will face each other one more time. Plus, the New England Patriots are next on the docket in an important Monday night affair. Those two games will likely determine whether or not Baltimore makes the playoffs. 

However, everything appears to be coming together at the right time—which makes Flacco and Co. dangerous. The Steelers can make the argument they're more explosive with Ben Roethlisberger behind center flanked by wide receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le'Veon Bell, but Pittsburgh can't claim the same caliber of defense or special teams.  

An elite designation is subjective. A top-end signal-caller isn't necessary to win a division or championship. Flacco's recent play indicates he'll be more than good enough to lead the Ravens to another AFC North crown even if he's not counted among the league's best quarterbacks. 

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @brentsobleski.

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