Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has been fighting an uphill battle his entire career. It was expressed to him countless times, in actions and in words, that he would never reach the top. Well, Sunday night in New Orleans, Flacco will have the top of the hill in his sights and well within his reach.
Most never thought Flacco would get as close as he has, but now that he is here, he needs to take full advantage of the opportunity because there’s no telling when he might be able to get this close again.
Flacco’s uphill climb began in college. After receiving little playing time in his first two seasons at Pittsburgh, he transferred to Delaware, where he got a chance to start, but with less exposure. Flacco fought the small-school stigma and became the first quarterback in 13 years to be drafted in the 1st round out of an FCS school. Due to injury and illness to the other quarterbacks on the roster, Flacco became Baltimore’s starting quarterback his rookie season by default. Since then, Flacco has strived to establish himself as one of the top quarterbacks in the league, making incremental progress each year, as he has slowly climbed to the top of the hill.
In 2008, on his way toward winning the Rookie of the Year award, Flacco became the 3rd rookie quarterback to win his first postseason game, and the first to do it on the road, as he brought the Ravens to the AFC Championship Game. Flacco would bring the Ravens to the playoffs each of the next two seasons, winning the wild card game only to lose in the divisional round each time, as he became the first quarterback to win at least one playoff game in each of his first three seasons. Slowly, and without as much fanfare as he deserved, Flacco was slowly climbing the hill, getting a little higher each year.
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In 2011, Flacco took another big step up the hill by getting the Ravens back to the AFC Championship Game for the first time since his rookie season. Flacco did enough to help the Ravens win the game, but a perfectly placed pass that would have ensured a Baltimore win was dropped in the end zone by wide receiver Lee Evans. The subsequent game-tying field goal was missed, allowing the Patriots to hold on for a 23-20 win. Then, after struggling late in the regular season in 2012, Flacco and the Ravens got it together just in time for playoffs, once again advancing to conference championship game, where they once again faced the Patriots. This time, Flacco left nothing to chance, throwing three touchdown passes in the second half and leading the Ravens to a comfortable win to clinch a spot in the Super Bowl.
That last win has Flacco just one win away from reaching the top of the hill, at which point he would have to garner serious consideration as an elite-level quarterback, something Flacco has not received, despite all that he has accomplished on his climb up the hill. However, if Flacco wishes to be considered one of the game’s best, he needs to seize the opportunity and win the Super Bowl now, because there’s no guarantee that he’ll be able to get this close to the top of the hill again.
The Baltimore defense, which has been tremendously helpful to Flacco during his five-year career, is showing signs of decline and won’t be able to provide Flacco with as much support in the future as he’s gotten in the past. Ray Lewis, the heart of the defense, won’t be coming back next season, and the Ravens certainly won’t be the same without him. Linebacker Terrell Suggs and safety Ed Reed, two key members of the Raven’s defense for many years, are also closing in on the end of their careers, and will be tough to replace, especially Reed, who is among the best safeties to ever play the game. Without the kind of stout defense that the Ravens have become accustomed to having, the journey back to the Super Bowl for Flacco and company in subsequent years will become noticeably harder.
Even if Flacco is able to raise his level of play to compensate for a declining Raven’s defense, the competition he will face in opposing quarterbacks in the AFC will be fierce for the foreseeable future. As Flacco moves into the prime of his career, he will still have playoff meetings with two of the best quarterbacks of all time: Peyton Manning and Tom Brady just as he did this year. Despite being in the twilight of their careers, Manning and Brady are still capable of leading their teams to a Super Bowl and are eager to get back to at least one more before their careers come to an end.
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Within his own division, Flacco still has to worry about getting past Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger, who can still play with the best of them when healthy, and Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton, a quarterback that has already proven he can win games after just two years in the league. Also, despite beating him in the wildcard round this season, Flacco will have plenty of rematches with the Colt’s Andrew Luck, who had one of the most impressive rookie seasons the NFL has ever seen from a quarterback, and who will only get better. Even though Flacco has triumphed over all of the aforementioned signal callers this season, taking them down again each and every postseason will be a stiff challenge.
Flacco has done well to get in the position that he’s in, making such a long trek up a steep hill. But as challenging as it’s been to get this close to the peak of the hill, it may be even more challenging to get this close to the top again if he were to fall off now. So with the opportunity right in front of him, Flacco needs to seize the moment and lead his team to a win Sunday night in New Orleans, because for guys like him, the chance to do this is rare, and it’s something that may not come around again.