OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Joe Flacco is doing things no other quarterback in the NFL has done.
Since joining the Baltimore Ravens as a first-round draft pick out of Delaware in 2008, he has won more games — regular-season and postseason combined — than any other starting quarterback, and that includes colleagues named Manning, Brady and Rodgers. Win No. 62 for Flacco came Sunday night at Gillette Stadium, where he and the Ravens steered themselves into the Super Bowl by soundly defeating the New England Patriots, 28-13, to win the AFC championship.
Yet for all his achievements, and there are many, Flacco has not always been warmly embraced outside his locker room. Critics have prodded at his statistics, citing his middling 54.4-percent completion rate in the postseason and his marginally better-than-average career passer rating of 86.3. His reputation as a game manager, a thinly veiled criticism in football circles, has trailed him like a rusty muffler.
That could be changing. Flacco continued his remarkable postseason run by carving up the Patriots, completing 21 of 36 passes for 240 yards and three touchdowns. Much of his best work came in the second half, when Baltimore outscored New England, 21-0. More surprising, it was business as usual for Flacco, who has now outshone Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady during the Ravens’ three-game playoff streak.
Flacco, the first quarterback to win at least one playoff game in each of his first five seasons, returned Monday to the team’s practice facility, where he said his mission for the next 24 hours would be to secure enough Super Bowl tickets for his family and friends. After that, the Ravens will turn their full attention to the San Francisco 49ers.
“I don’t know if anyone’s quite believed it yet, but it’s pretty real," Flacco said.
There has long been a certain futility for Flacco when it comes to defending his position in the NFL quarterback hierarchy. Does he consider himself an elite player? Does he think the critiques are fair? Flacco has grown skilled at sidestepping such analysis.
On Monday, for example, he was asked whether he felt any sense of vindication after advancing to his first Super Bowl.
“I don’t know," he said. “We’re just going out there playing football."
When it was mentioned that Flacco, 28, would be considered the crafty veteran in a matchup against Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers’ second-year quarterback, Flacco dismissed the comparison. It never crosses his mind, he said.
“It’s funny how things work and how you guys talk about things," he said, referring to the news media. “We’re just out there playing a game."
Coach John Harbaugh said he viewed Flacco’s postseason performance — 853 passing yards, eight touchdowns and no interceptions — as part of a natural progression. Sounding like the chief executive of a wallboard manufacturer, Harbaugh described Flacco’s play as “some good output, honestly, in terms of production."
None of it has seemed to surprise Harbaugh.
“But to string it together like he’s done — back-to-back-to-back in the most critical time of the year — is the great thing about it," Harbaugh said. “And I really believe that we saw that coming as a football staff and as an organization. It’s just the way he’s been practicing."
At this stage of their relationship, Harbaugh said, he feels comfortable consulting Flacco on a wide range of issues. Halftime of Sunday’s game was not an instance in which he deemed it necessary. The Ravens were trailing the Patriots, 13-7, when Harbaugh made a cameo in the offensive meeting.
“John came over and said, ‘Listen, we didn’t come all this way to play it safe and hope to win a football game,’" Flacco said. “We had nothing to lose."
Offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell decided to go with a three-receiver set, and Harbaugh said he could tell that Flacco supported the move. He went to work in the second half, completing 15 of 24 passes for 159 yards and all three of his touchdowns.
“It wasn’t something where we had to go ask Joe, ‘Joe, what do you want to do?’" Harbaugh said. “We had a pretty good idea what Joe wanted to do."
Flacco, who will become a free agent after the Super Bowl and typically conveys about as much emotion as a lamppost, said he always thought about being a Super Bowl quarterback, even when he was in college. Flacco used that word — always — three times, repeating it like a mantra, an unusual point of emphasis from him. He made sure to get his message across.
He never doubted himself, even if others did.