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Five Weeks Of Hell: Revisiting Joe Flacco’s Historic Super Bowl Run

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For five weeks and four games, Joe Flacco was elite.

Super Bowl XLVII - Baltimore Ravens v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Six years ago, it was much more fun to be a football fan. Instead of spending the summer discussing a potential helmet rule neutering the game and making it impossible to play, the morality of standing up for the National Anthem, whether NFL owners are colluding to keep players who protest off the field, the unfair competition and treatment of cheerleaders, or brutal head injuries that can suck the life out of the most Herculean of athletes, we discussed one simple thing: Is Joe Flacco elite?

The Ravens ended the 2012 season 10-6 and won the AFC North. They weren’t the same brutal Ravens, however. Their defense ended the season 22nd in defensive DVOA after finishing first the year before and ranked 12th in points allowed. Their offense was fine, better than usual, characterized by a mediocre pass offense and a top ten run offense that didn’t chew up the clock like cliched football would expect it to. Baltimore was in the postseason like they always were, but they didn’t look like an actual contender. Instead it was expected for it to be a New England-Denver, Tom Brady versus Peyton Manning matchup for the millionth time. It was a collision course toward CBS’ wet dream.

This didn’t happen. Instead, Joe Flacco lost his {expletive] mind.

During the 2012 NFL Playoffs, Flacco completed 73 of his 126 attempts for 1,140 yards. He threw 11 touchdowns and 0 interceptions. He had an #ELITE touchdown rate of 8.7%, the type of touchdown rate that only quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers, Brady, Manning, and Kurt Warner eclipse, and others like Deshaun Watson and Carson Wentz recently have in small sample sizes.

Again, Joe Flacco threw 11 touchdowns and 0 interceptions. Flacco’s career touchdown rate is 3.8%, yet Flacco did it throwing the ball into a coronal mass ejection, averaging 9 yards an attempt, 10.8 adjusted yards an attempt, and 15.6 yards per completion. On passes classified as deep, Flacco completed 17 out of 36 (47.2%) of them for 561 yards and 5 touchdowns. Throughout his career, Flacco has averaged a completion rate of 33.6% and a touchdown to interception ratio of 13:21 on those same throws. 2012 Playoff Joe Flacco wassn’t the same person. These are dizygotic twins.

Sure, you can talk about the rest of the Ravens. Baltimore had one of the best interior line trios in the league. Their defense was in the touch of gray stage of their lives but tackled well and did just enough to get by. Paul Kruger went out and got his money. Terrell Suggs was a Monstar rushing from the edge. The Ray Rice/Bernard Pierce combo broke a lot of tackles and was great in the passing game. Anquan Boldin should be the owner of a golden jacket because of what he did that postseason. But come on, the monumental reason why they ended up winning a Super Bowl was because of Joe Flacco. And Jacoby Jones.

Flacco is now unrecognizable to his 2012 NFL Playoffs self. Since that magical postseason, Flacco has led the Ravens to one postseason berth, with the rest ending in mediocrity or hilarious losing to the Bengals in Week 17 calamity. Since then, Flacco has had one good year of play, when Gary Kubiak allowed him to run bootlegs set up by a Justin Forsett outside zone rushing attack. Kubiak schemed to set up easy efficient throws and the same soaring bombs for Flacco. That season, Flacco finished 7th in DVOA and 8th in DYAR. In the other seasons since that Lombardi kissing pinnacle, Flacco finished 35th, 26th, 29th, and 30th in DVOA, and 40th, 27th, 30th, and 32nd in DYAR.

Flacco has not only been ineffective; he’s been exorbitantly paid as well. In hindsight, this is of course awful, terrible, and brutal. Yet, paying Flacco did make sense at the time. He was 28 years old. He was about to enter the pro-typical quarterback prime. Quarterback contracts were inflating. And he had just come off one of the most incredible performances in football history. So the Ravens made Joe Flacco the highest-paid player in football, giving him a six-year $120.6 million contract with $29 million guaranteed and a $29 million bonus. Flacco was extended again on March 2, 2016 for three years and $66.4 million to spread out a potential $28.5 million cap hit after an ACL-shredding 14 touchdown/12 interception season.

Since the Super Bowl win, the Ravens have been stuck with Flacco. They couldn’t get out of his contract. They’ve had no other options. That changed this year. The Ravens finally have a potential out for Flacco. They selected transcendental college quarterback Lamar Jackson at the end of the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft. They can get out of Flacco’s contract without losing their life savings to dead money. After the 2018 season, the Ravens can either pay Flacco $24.75 million, pay $24.75 million in dead money and come out even, or wait until 2019 to part ways with him, when they can save $10.5 million in cap space while stomaching a coarse $16 million dead money cap hit.

Make no mistake: Flacco is horrendous. He’s been the least valuable player in the NFL when you coagulate production, efficiency, position importance, and contract in the same slow cooker. The most likely outcome for Baltimore is that Jackson takes over during this season or after this year, the Ravens spend two years remolding their offense while dealing with Flacco’s crusty skidmark on their cap sheet, and Flacco changes his name and starts wearing flower shirts in Tampa, Miami, or someplace equally as depressing for a year until becoming a ‘Hey, remember him?’ helpful meeting room backup quarterback who secretly hopes he never has to play while always remaining ready.

Still, the soothsaying and warlock extrapolating, the past letdowns and what wasn’ts can’t take away the four games that were played in January and February of 2013. In those four games, when it seemingly mattered the most, Flacco unleashed the gates of hell and set the NFL on fire.

Baltimore’s first playoff victory came against a young, spry, wistful rookie Andrew Luck. Luck had a full head of hair, a full rotation of his shoulder, and rode the luckiest team in football to a wild card berth. However, in this game, Luck and a defense with a DVOA of 14.0% was no match for Baltimore. The Ravens came into the game seven point favorites. They won 24-9. Baltimore wouldn’t be favored for the rest of the postseason.

Against both Indianapolis and Denver, Flacco took advantage of terrible safety play. In his opening playoff win over the Colts, Flacco averaged 12.26 yards an attempt and 14 adjusted yards an attempt. He completed only 12 passes, but when they hit, they were a free neutron striking the nucleus. And by “hit,” I mean Flacco just closed his eyes and threw the ball up astronomically high.

The Colts routinely played Cover Three and Four. Sometimes they played with five defensive backs deep. It didn’t matter. No matter how far defensive backs went out to sea, all Flacco needed was a heave and a wish to complete passes deep.

Sometimes Flacco just dropped absolute water bucket plopping bombs.

It also helped the Colts had—and still do have—one of the worst secondaries in football. Boldin was an impenetrable go up and get it monstrosity.

It wasn’t all lovely and perfect. Flacco got away with some future Flaccoesque mistakes that weren’t capitalized on. Especially when the pocket became as suffocating as a turtle neck and the pocket closed in like adulthood on a wild heart.

It doesn’t matter since it didn’t happen. Flacco threw zero interceptions that postseason. It will forever be spectacular that someone with a career 2.5% interception rate didn’t throw one over the course of 126 postseason passes. Luck, on the other hand, wasn’t so lucky. With the Colts in the red zone, he threw an interception on an out route that ended the game.

An interception added a dog year to his age.

The Ravens did what they were expected to do. They tormented a fraudulent Colts team that shouldn’t have been there despite their efforts from their wunderkind architecture-studying quarterback.

The following week Baltimore headed on the road as nine-point underdogs to play the 13-3 Broncos and one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. Peyton Manning was coming off neck surgery and had a 37 touchdown season with a a completion percentage of 68.6%.

Instantly, like undigestable noodles, Flacco attacked the Broncos’ secondary. He found Torrey Smith right away in the first quarter. All Smith did was outrun Champ Bailey off the line of scrimmage and trail to the middle of the field. Flacco put it right on him. Smith absolutely destroyed Bailey this game and ended his career. Champ would only play five games the following season and would then retire.

After this deep fly, Flacco was messy. He overthrew and just Jake Locker whiffed on open receivers. He completed only 18 of his 34 passes. He struggled with accuracy downfield.

But like the Colts game, when Flacco hit, boy did he it. Flacco averaged 18.38 yards a completion and threw three touchdowns. He was able to find Smith down the sideline again in one-on-one coverage against Bailey. On this throw, Flacco takes some air off of it and floats it to Smith. Smith of course stops, readjusts to the ball, and leaps over the top of Bailey to tie the game at 21 going into halftime.

On the final drive of regulation, the Ravens were down 35-28 and had the ball at their own 23 yard line. Their win probability was 3.06%. The computer expected them to score 0.167 points on this drive. On first down, Flacco missed Dennis Pitta deep over the middle after Pitta slipped and fell. On second and ten, Flacco stepped up to spew chunks, but instead scrambled up the middle for seven yards.

Then on 3rd and 3, magic happened. The sky separated. Something bigger than all of us on this slab of rack intervened. Flacco went deep right to Jacoby Jones for 70 yards.

The angle doesn’t matter.

It’s sublime every time.

It wasn’t always perfect, but Flacco took shots every chance he got. When you take enough of them, eventually one will go in. Eventually you’ll hit Smith in stride. Eventually Rahim Moore will lose his ability to perceive depths of oblong objects soaring through a thin atmosphere at the most inopportune of times (and then he’ll sign with the Texans; that won’t work out either).

Moore was never very good, but he never recovered from this failure. How could you? This was Vlade tipping the ball to Horry. This was Cruz in right field. This was Buckner’s passed ball. This was Kasay shanking the kickoff out of bounds. Hopefully Moore isn’t out there fighting fires somewhere, attempting to catch cats and babies released out of their mother’s arms from the tops of burning buildings.

Morris is a legend, a man who will be remembered forever, but the Broncos still got the ball back with 31 seconds remaining. They had two timeouts, the second greatest quarterback of all time against an old defense, and Matt Prater at kicker. Prater had made three of his four 50+ yard field goals attempts that year. He nailed a 59 yard field goal the year before and a 64 yard field goal the year after.

Instead of taking a shot, John Fox opted to kneel the ball and play for overtime.

The game still went into double overtime. For Flacco, overtime was about what he didn’t do. He made one spectacular throw that flipped field position and resuscitated the Ravens out of their own end zone.

Most importantly, Flacco almost did turned the ball over but didn’t. Chris Harris Jr. leaped in front of a slant to Boldin. The ball slapped against his hands. The Ravens escaped without handing the ball over at their own 45 yard line.

Flacco didn’t do what Manning did, throw a defeat-ensuring interception. The fact that Manning attempted this slow, lazy throw on the run makes it so much better.

Playoff overtime games are often a war of attrition. The rope is tugged back and forth with each team slightly relinquishing field position before snatching it back or taking even more until collapse happens. The line is finally crossed. The field goal kicker takes off his robe and strolls on the field. The Ravens ran for one first down. Rookie kicker Justin Tucker rocked it. Manning’s cranky, but he would eventually be rewarded in 2015 with karmic justice after having one of the worst single seasons of any starting quarterback in NFL history to win a Super Bowl.

After beating the Broncos in Denver, the Ravens traveled to New England. Flacco did it again. He lopped the head off another all-time great quarterback. This time it was the greatest quarterback of all-time, Tom Brady.

There’s Brady. Then there’s Bill Belichick, and the great saying regarding Belichick is that he takes away what you do best. Well, what the Ravens’ offense did best was throw it downfield. The Patriots took away exactly that. Flacco completed only 4 of his 11 deep targets for 90 yards against the Patriots. Most of his throws were thrown too far while a defensive back ran hip to hip with the receiver and a safety lurked in the vicinity.

It didn’t ruin Flacco. Instead, he attacked the seams opened up by the deep safety play, flicking pinpoint darts to Pitta and Boldin.

This had to wait until the second half, though. In the first half, the Ravens’ offense dealt with some constricting field position. Each one of their five drives started inside their own twenty yard line. They punted four times and scored once ,thanks to a back alley backstreet brawl Ray Rice touchdown. New England continuously moved the ball well until stalling out on three 3rd and 2s and a 3rd and 9 before ending the half with a field goal. The Patriots scored 13 points despite picking up 13 third downs and accruing 244 yards. They wouldn’t score again.

Flacco shed his inconsistent skin, brittle and piebald, right away in the third quarter. His arm finally agreed. It was strong. It was steady. He heaved one up and let Boldin bounce off a trampoline to snag it downfield.

After this throw, Flacco would go on to throw three touchdowns that traveled distances of 5, 3, and 11 yards. The first was to Pitta, who was matched up in the slot against the safety. Pitta cuts outside and the safety misses his jam.

Flacco found Boldin again in the slot once the fourth quarter rose from the horizon, bloody and squabbling. Falling off his back foot, Flacco tossed up a fade away with great touch. Boldin floated over the defensive back and of course held on after taking a high hit from the safety.

Flacco found Boldin again running out of the slot with 11:20 remaining in the fourth quarter to put the last clod of dirt on top of New England’s grave, making it 28-13. A subtle jab was all it took to get the defensive back running with his back turned. Flacco threw an easy touchdown right over the back of the DB’s head.

Heading into the Super Bowl, the biggest stories were Colin Kaepernick as the future of football running all over defenses with zone reads, epitomizing multi-dimensional offensive football that neutralized the defense’s number advantage, Jim Harbaugh versus John Harbaugh and their parents wearing one of those half 49ers-half Ravens jerseys, Ray Lewis’s last ride before going on television to take a circular saw to our skulls and then defecating directly onto our brains, and whether Flacco could stay scorching for one more game.

He did stay hot, and he did so with a combination of the previous three weeks’ worth of performances. Flacco slung it deep with his eyes closed and took advantage of the middle of the field once the safeties went scampering deep.

Flacco would complete 22 of his 33 passes for 287 yards and 3 touchdowns, all while putting up his best completion percentage of the postseason at 66.6%. His first touchdown came on the opening drive. Boldin jabbed inside at the linebacker and cut back up the seam for an easy touchdown out of the slot.

No matter what Flacco did, it worked against the third best defense in football according to DVOA. Run away from pressure and barely get the ball to the sideline? Sure, Boldin will come back for it and make the snag.

Fake the play action and almost get picked off? Sure, the ball will pop into the air and fall right into a babbling, bobbling backwards Ed Dickson, who then fell for additional yards.

Step up in the pocket and toss it deep? Sure, Jacoby Jones will be wide open again, juke around three defenders, and cackle at horrific safety play.

Run backwards fifteen yards and evade a sack? Sure, just throw it away and settle for a field goal to make it an eight-point game.

Following a Jacoby Jones 109 yard kick return, the 49ers were down 28-6. They almost came back. They recovered from some crushing first half turnovers. Half the stadium lost power and the 49ers scrambled to find their secret stuff. They were resurrected along with the stadium lighting.

However, San Francisco slipped on the precipice of the summit because of a hideous two point conversion attempt that left the score 30-31 and three throws at the Ravens’ five yard line that failed to cross the goal line Baltimore would win 34-31. Jim beat John. Flacco was named Super Bowl M.V.P.

The revolutions of the ceiling fan and the orbiting of Earth have led to us all waking up and being here all of a sudden. Six years later, Joe Flacco’s postseason performance feels like a hallucination after everything that has happened.

Did Joe Flacco actually average 10.8 yards an attempt and throw 11 touchdowns to 0 interceptions during the NFL Playoffs? Yes. Yes, he did. All that twisting and turning has morphed Flacco from a Super Bowl winning quarterback about to enter his prime to the least valuable player in football.

And yet it doesn’t matter. Flacco torched the Earth. He set fire to everything. That flag flies forever. Diamonds sparkle infinitely. Is Joe Flacco elite? For four games over five weeks, he was more than elite. He was one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time.