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Joe Flacco has played five full seasons in the NFL, and in each one, he has thrown for fewer than 4,000 yards and completed less than 64 percent of his throws. He has never been sacked fewer than 30 times, and he has never thrown more than 25 touchdowns. Flacco turns 28 tomorrow. He'll be a free agent once the season ends, and we've seen enough of him to know that he'll never be "the best," like he said he was, or an "elite," "top-five guy," like his agent said he was. However he finishes these playoffs, and wherever he plays next year, he will remain Joe Flacco, big-armed oaf.
But it's Flacco who's the only quarterback left standing from the wild card round. Matt Schaub, reliable veteran; Russell Wilson, superlative rookie; and Aaron Rodgers, elite champion, have all packed it in. Andrew Luck and Peyton Manning, two generations' ideal quarterbacks, both exited while Flacco prevailed. He has the playoffs' best passer rating. So he must be doing something right.
Flacco has done exactly one thing right—he's thrown the ball deep. You'll recall the end-of-regulation desperation heave to Jacoby Jones, the 70-yard touchdown that hoisted the Ravens into overtime. You'll likely also recall the 59-yard bomb to Torrey Smith, the throw that answered Trindon Holliday's first return touchdown. Those weren’t one-off aberrations. This is what Joe Flacco does, and he does it well enough to take Baltimore to the brink of an AFC title.
Flacco averaged an eye-popping 18.4 yards per completion on Saturday, and it wasn't skewed all that much by those two plays. (Against Indianapolis, for example, he had a similarly charmed outing: 23.5 yards per completion, without a pass over 50 yards.) His afternoon featured the whole deep-passing spectrum, good and bad.
He drew a 25-yard pass interference flag on a deep throw to Tandon Doss in the first quarter. On a third-and-two from Denver's 43, he led Torrey Smith out of bounds 30 yards downfield—a drive that could easily have ended in a field goal finished up with a punt. On another second-quarter play, Flacco, on his own 35, tried to hit Smith on Denver's 25, but he led him by two yards too many. Baltimore went three and out that series. At that quarter's end, Flacco, down seven, had 40 seconds and two timeouts left, 32 yards from the end zone. Some offenses might have played to avoid the turnover and take a sure three points. Flacco instead went for it all. He underthrew the ball to a covered Smith, who tracked it in the air—he slowed down and jumped for it, and then traipsed into the end zone while Champ Bailey's momentum carried him hopelessly out of the play. Baltimore had evened things up.
In the fourth quarter, with Baltimore down seven and driving, Flacco hit Anquan Boldin for consecutive strikes of 19 and 17 yards. On the first one, Denver had worried too much about deep threats Smith and Jacoby Jones and left Boldin alone. On the second, Denver gave Boldin enough cushion that Flacco could complete an out route. But Baltimore turned it over on downs, thanks in large part to an open Jones dropping a ball he nearly caught with room to run. No one ever said speedsters had great hands. But once Baltimore had the ball back in regulation, Jones redeemed himself, sprinting as far down the field as he could. Flacco avoided the rush, stepped up, and lofted the ball 56 yards in the air, to Denver's 20. That was just far enough to beat Rahim Moore, Denver's deep safety, who had misjudged the ball in flight. The ball plopped into Jones' arms, and he ran it in. Tie game.
On a second-and-10 in overtime from Baltimore's six, Flacco rolled left and looked deep for a covered Boldin at the 25-yard line. As the ball began to land, CBS's cameras showed three Broncos within five yards of Flacco's receiver. The thing eventually plopped in the grasp of Mike Adams, the corner. His momentum carried both of his feet out of bounds. Game-ending interception averted. But on the very next snap, after a delay-of-game penalty, Flacco redeemed deep passing. Throwing from his own end zone, he hit Dennis Pitta, who was bracketed by two safeties, with a 24-yard strike. You couldn't know it at the time, but the Ravens had just won the all-important battle of field position in sudden death. When Baltimore next punted, they were in good shape. Manning would have to work his way out of his own territory. He did, but just barely, and when Corey Graham intercepted him on the next series, Baltimore just had to take care of business.
The Ravens' offense against Denver looked a lot like a Madden attack. There was little rhythm, none of Denver's incremental assault or repeated 10-yard passes. Baltimore was calling bombs. This appears to be the same offense they ran to get Cam Cameron fired, only with a few more Ray Rice dives for two yards. Per Pro Football Focus, Flacco targeted a receiver 20 yards or more downfield on 17.3 percent of his attempts this year, tops in the league.
But bombs are what you need when you have Joe Flacco—his cannon is his best trait. In 2012, he ranked 33rd out of 38 qualified starters in Pro Football Focus's accuracy percentage stat, for all passes. But for deep throws, targeted 20 yards or more downfield, he ranked 18th out of 33 in accuracy. And the throws he completed got him plenty of results: He had 1,100 yards on 92 attempts—good for fourth best in the league—with 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions. The interception-free slate says more about Flacco's receivers, and his luck, than it does about his arm, but downfield interceptions generally don't kill an offense either way. If your receiver loses his mid-air battle, and the defender intercepts the pass, it functions as a so-so punt. If your receiver wins his battle, he snags a big chunk of yardage. And if the fight is a stalemate, your receiver might wind up with plenty of penalty yardage. It's usually a good idea to go deep.
NFL fans revere offenses like New England's, where the plays create space for the receivers—backs, tight ends, slot men. The throws are pitch-and-catch, not jump balls. But the Ravens don't have New England's personnel, and they don't have Tom Brady's pre-snap smarts. What they have, in Boldin and Smith, are two fearless receivers who play bigger and taller than they are.
And they have Joe Flacco, the NFL's self-proclaimed best. But let's revisit his April quote in light of his January. Here's what he said: "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. I mean, c'mon? That's not really too tough of a question." That's not a boast. That's the kind of confidence you need to heave a ball 40 yards downfield, again and again, certain that this time your receiver will catch it.