PROVIDENCE, R.I. - It was nearly perfect.
Playing for a conference championship on the road, against the AFC's top seed and arguably the best quarterback and head coach of this era, the Ravens' quiet, much-maligned signal-caller nearly carried his team to a dramatic, last-minute win.
Told all week that he couldn't compete with the great Tom Brady, Joe Flacco didn't just hang with the Patriots' six-time Pro Bowl quarterback, he outplayed him. Flacco threw for more than 300 passing yards and two touchdowns and finished with a quarterback rating of 95.4, dwarfing Brady's rating of 57.5.
Called out by members of the media and even his own teammate for not having control of the offense, Flacco brought his team back from three separate deficits. Facing a long field and trailing by a field goal in the final minutes, Flacco marched the Ravens 65 yards deep into Patriots territory.
Then, with 27 seconds left, he delivered a perfect would-be touchdown pass to the back shoulder of wide receiver Lee Evans. The ball landed in Evans' hands. The Ravens bench erupted. Flacco started running toward his sideline, eager to celebrate his game-winning touchdown pass with all those who had doubted him watching on.
But before he could get there, Flacco saw the official waving his arms, signaling an incomplete pass. Evans had gotten the ball smacked out of his hands, and two plays later, any hope of a fairytale ending was crushed when Billy Cundiff's field goal sailed wide left.
Under the bright lights, Flacco played the best game of his career, but that didn't ease the pain immediately after the defeat.
"We lost; someone has to lose," Flacco said. "For us, we laid it all out there. We can look at each other and say we left it all out on the field and gave it our best. Did we play every play our best and did we execute everything the best? No. (If we had), we'd be out on the field right now celebrating. But it just doesn't happen that way. Somebody lost, it was us. We left it all out there. We've got to be proud of that and move on."
Flacco personally has a lot to be proud of, that's for damn sure. The fourth-year quarterback had the weight of the entire organization on his shoulders coming into the game.
It was in some ways a no-win situation. If Flacco failed to step up to the task, he'd be painted by his critics as a quarterback unfit for the big stage, one who couldn't win a crucial game when the pressure was on. If the Ravens upset the top-seeded Patriots, the credit would likely go elsewhere - to the defense for slowing Brady and carrying Flacco to another win, or to running back Ray Rice or wide receiver Anquan Boldin for making the big plays in key spots.
And somehow, despite losing the game, Flacco walked out of Gillette Stadium with a mini victory.
It certainly wasn't the victory he wanted, but it's tough for anyone who watched yesterday's game to say that Flacco isn't the quarterback the Ravens have been insisting he can be for four seasons. The critics can't do much talking today.
"I would appreciate if some of the people that criticize him (would) lay off him now," running back Ray Rice said. "That's my quarterback. He's going to be here for a while."
"He played his butt off," said safety Bernard Pollard. "For the people that keep dogging him, if you ain't never played this game, shut up. Shut up. Flacco played his tail off. He went out there and played. I think a lot of people just don't understand. You want to dog a player, and we understand it's your job, but you never spatted up and put your skills on display on the field. That man does it week in and week out. He's a winner. For everybody that keeps dogging him and saying whatever ... shut up."
Flacco isn't the type for moral victories. He doesn't care about proving anything to his critics or rubbing his personal success in anyone's face amid team failures. But he is a proud man, a man who's tired of hearing that he's not the right quarterback for this organization.
There will still be those out there who doubt him, that's for sure. People will still find faults with his play and raise questions as to whether the Ravens should invest big money in Flacco as their quarterback of the future. But none of that matters to the 6-foot-6 QB today.
"I don't care," Flacco said, when asked if he proved anything Sunday. "Look at the film. If you look at the film, you see how I play. I pretty much play the same every week. If you think I played better this week than other weeks then I think you're wrong. This is the way I play every week and I really don't care. I don't know if I ever will prove everything; that's not up to me. My job is to go out there and play and give our team the best shot to win."
Flacco did that. Unfortunately, it just wasn't enough.