Flacco the right quarterback for Ravens

When Joe Flacco becomes a free agent at the end of this playoff run, the Ravens won't hesitate to do everything they can to keep him, and that is the absolute right move.

Flacco is the best possible starting quarterback an organization as successful as the Ravens can find. Brett Favres, Peyton Mannings and Tom Bradys aren't available in every draft, and with the way Baltimore wins, they certainly aren't left where the Ravens draft each season.

When NFL teams find a great arm, they keep it, so free agency isn't often an option to find one.

Although you can argue all you want about whether or not Flacco is elite, it's hard to make a case that he isn't among the league's top 10 at his position, and Ravens fans should be happy to have him.

His teammates and coaches certainly are. Linebacker Ray Lewis went as far as to call Flacco, "the General," before Saturday's game, and tailback Ray Rice said Wednesday that the fifth-year quarterback is that kind of leader.

"I've always said this offense goes as Joe goes," Rice said. "Joe Flacco is truly our leader. Not only has he taken the role of being our leader, but he's been leading us down this whole stretch. One thing that he's doing is he's very vocal. He gets us lined up, he does everything that he needs to do as a quarterback.

"We're executing at a high level. Playoff football, you put everything aside, Joe Flacco is playing lights out right now. We're riding with him. It's our job as a collective offense to keep this thing rolling. Everybody has a job. His job is obviously the hardest job on the field as the General. But we've all got to take a part in bits and pieces of going out there and executing. But Ray Lewis said it right. He is the General and that is a lot of responsibility. But he's definitely taken it and he's taken it and ran with it, and he's doing a great job."

Flacco, this week's "Sports Illustrated" cover boy, is the first quarterback in NFL history to win at least one playoff game in each of his first five campaigns. With Flacco under center, the Ravens have gone 54-26 during the regular season and advanced to three AFC championship games.

Joe_Flacco_Home.jpgThe 28-year-old has passed for at least 3,600 yards and 20 touchdowns in each of the last four seasons, but 2012 might've been his best. Flacco threw for a career-high 3,817 yards, 22 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, leading the Ravens to a franchise single-season scoring record.

Flacco has overcome an uneven stretch toward the end of the regular season - one which coincided with the team's three-game losing streak and overlapped a run of five straight games where he fumbled - to help Baltimore right itself in Week 16 and roll to Sunday's AFC championship.

He has thrown for 613 yards, five touchdowns and no picks in the Ravens' first two playoff games.

Flacco said he doesn't think he has elevated his own play as the games have increased in importance.

"I think you go out there and you play of course to win a football game," he said. "Some of the things that have been required to win some of these football games have maybe been a little over the top, a little abnormal. But no, I would like to think that I go out there and play consistently and approach everything the same way. I think that's been proved out.

"We win a lot of football games around here and this is actually the third time that I'm standing up here getting ready to play in the AFC championship. It's pretty crazy when you think about it and who knows what it's going to take to win on Sunday? But our mindset is it's going to take our best and we're going to go give it."

Flacco will certainly play a role on Sunday, as the Ravens will need to keep up with the Patriots, the league's No. 1 team in yards and points scored during the regular season.

To his credit, Flacco has performed superbly in five career games against New England, completing 64.7 percent of his passes for 1,271 yards, nine touchdowns and four interceptions.

And that includes the Ravens' 33-14 playoff win in 2009 where Flacco went just 4-for-10 for 34 yards and a pick.

Vince Wilfork, the Patriots' All-Pro defensive tackle, is enamored with Flacco after what the passer has done head-to-head with New England. He poured praise in Flacco's direction this week during a press conference in Foxborough, Mass.

"He's a great quarterback, I don't care what nobody says about him. He seems to always have a good game against us," Wilfork told reporters. "One thing he does is stay poised, no matter how bad things get or how good things are. He's a tough quarterback. He's a competitor and it shows. He's putting his team in some good situations, not turning the ball over much. When they ask him to make the plays, he makes them.

"He is a very, very tough - physically and mentally - football player. No matter how bad it gets, he seems to block everything out and plays football. It showed last week against Denver. Big arm. Throughout the course of the game, it wasn't perfect, but he made the throw and they made the catch for him. It says a lot about that football team. He's definitely one of the tougher quarterbacks in this league. He has a big heart and he plays to win."

Flacco's arm is what makes him most impressive. ESPN analyst and former Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski has often said he believes Flacco throws the best deep ball in the NFL.

Wideout Anquan Boldin shares that opinion.

"I would have to say so. I've never played with a guy with that much talent; I'm talking about physical and Joe's able to make any throw on the field," Boldin said. "You talked about him making big-time throws and deep balls, he really does it."

Yet Flacco still seems to have a large group of haters out there, and those who doubt his ability.

That likely stems from some of his in-game inconsistency and infrequent rough stretches like the one where he fumbled five games in a row from Nov. 18 to Dec. 16. But he often rebounds from those slips, as he has now.

Flacco and the Ravens' offense have been perhaps the team's biggest keys to victory so far during the playoffs, and Flacco hasn't been intercepted in four straight games.

While some outsiders don't view Flacco as a top-10 NFL quarterback, those around the Ravens feel strongly about him.

"He already has our respect," Boldin said. "I'm around the guy every day. I see what he does on a daily basis, so I think he has the respect of this locker room."

Flacco's performance in Baltimore's double-overtime upset at Denver on Saturday will go down as one of his best. He passed for 331 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-tying 70-yard heave in the final minute of the 38-35 victory.

Some have said Flacco likely made himself a ton of money with a showing like that at such a critical moment. If true, that might be negated by a more ordinary showing at the Patriots.

But the Ravens already have a good idea about how valuable Flacco is, and will likely pay their quarterback accordingly.

"Joe has been growing. Joe has been growing like all of our guys. But, it's definitely under a microscope at quarterback," coach John Harbaugh said. "It's definitely what everybody looks at and watches. To see Joe have that kind of a game in that kind of an environment is something all of us who are in Joe's corner knew was there. It's been the last two weeks, (but) it's really been throughout the season we've seen the growth."