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There is something to be gained from watching football at ground level, especially from the end zone behind the offense as a play unfolds. What you see, mostly, is how difficult the game is, how fast it moves, and how singularly challenging it is to play quarterback, out of all the positions in sports. With less than a minute to go in regulation of last Saturday's AFC divisional playoff round in Denver, facing third-and-three at his own 30-yard line with no timeouts left, and trailing the Broncos 35--28, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco picked himself up following a seven-yard scramble and listened to the play call from offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell. "Scat Right 99," Caldwell said.
Four verticals, Flacco thought. Four receivers—two right, two left—running go routes, with Ray Rice trolling underneath as the safety valve out of the backfield. Not much time to think. Flacco knew that Rice would be open; he's always open. But he also knew he had reached the moment of truth in Baltimore's season, and it was not a time to think about safety valves. He was thinking, I hope one of my guys gets one step ahead of one of their corners.
In the seconds before the snap, the crowd sounded frenetic in the --2° wind chill. Broncos defenders ran about, pointing and arranging coverage. No such frantic movement from Flacco, though. Standing alone at the 25, waiting for the shotgun snap, he may have been the calmest guy in the place.
"You better have guts to play the quarterback position," Flacco's backup, Tyrod Taylor, said afterward. "In the middle of everything going on out there, you better not be afraid. You'll fail."
THERE HAS always been a calm about Flacco. Calm in the face of criticism that he's a B-minus quarterback, and in the face of incredulity—both inside and outside the Ravens' organization—over his turning down a big-money extension entering this season, the final year of his contract. Calm in the big moments of violent games against the archrival Steelers, and in practices when the mouthy Ravens defense never shuts up. That's what Baltimore's coaches and players noticed when he got to his first training camp in 2008. In one of Flacco's first padded practices, Ray Lewis crept close to the line and began shouting out distracting phony signals. The QB stood behind center, lips sealed, waiting for Lewis to shut up, as if to say, Are you quite finished? Then Flacco ran his play. "Around here," former offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said that afternoon, "the days when the defense pushes around the offense are over."
Flacco has had more than a few good moments in the subsequent five seasons. Would you be surprised to know that at 61--30—four wins better than Aaron Rodgers—he's the winningest quarterback since 2008, when he entered the NFL? That he's started all 91 games, including playoffs, from the day he was drafted? That he's the only passer in NFL history to win a postseason game in each of his first five seasons? Because Flacco's numbers are pedestrian—he's never had a 4,000-yard season or a passer rating above 94.0—Football Nation thinks he's just another guy. Not that he cares. Says center Matt Birk, "When you talk about Joe's accomplishments, I can promise you he's the least impressed with them."
But in a just-move-the-chains-baby league, Flacco's inarguably the best deep-ball thrower in football now. Through 18 games this year, including the playoffs, Pro Football Focus charts him as having the most completions that travel at least 20 yards past the line of scrimmage (44), the most yards on 20-plus-yard throws (1,442) and the most touchdowns on those deep strikes (15). And of his 105 long attempts this year, zero have been intercepted. Consider all that when taking in Flacco's Saturday cool.
Walking out of the tunnel before the game, Lewis tapped him on the shoulder pads.
"You're our general now," said the retiring one. "Lead us. Lead us!"
Forty-one seconds to go. "I wasn't happy with a few of my decisions earlier in the game," says Flacco. "A couple of times, I found myself thinking, Damn Joe! What are you doing?" Now the Ravens were set in the four-across formation: Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones as the outside speed guys; trusted veteran Anquan Boldin and tight end Dennis Pitta inside. Flacco saw Denver would be rushing three, with a linebacker to his left covering Rice and seven men deep in coverage. Three safeties sat at least 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage, fanned out for all contingencies. The free safety wide to Flacco's right, Rahim Moore, was a couple of yards shallower than the safety aligned in the middle.