Flacco takes step forward to give Ravens Super Bowl hope

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Joe Flacco needed a performance like this.

The Baltimore Ravens needed Flacco to have a performance like this.

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Merely beating the Kansas City Chiefs in Sunday's wild-card matchup wasn't going to be enough to change the nagging conversation, for Flacco and the team, that the Ravens just might not have the right quarterback to lead them in the postseason.

Flacco couldn't be ordinary or average. He had to play well. He did.

Spectacular? No. His accuracy left something to be desired, especially when dealing with the pressure he felt for much of the game. There were multiple throws behind receivers, including one that Anquan Boldin saved from being intercepted. Flacco will likely need to be better when the Ravens face the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFL's second-ranked defense in the divisional round.

Still, what he did was a significant improvement over five previous career playoff games. For a change, he wasn't simply along for the ride while the running game carried the offense. It was Flacco who did the heaviest offensive lifting in the Ravens' 30-7 victory. He did it with his arm and, surprisingly, his feet. He did it with that trademark "Joe Cool" composure he has shown since he was a rookie in 2008.

"A quarterback's got to make plays in games like this -- scramble plays, throws," coach John Harbaugh said. "(The Chiefs are) a very good coverage team, and Joe making plays with a great pass rush bearing down on him, that was probably the difference in the game."

Probably.

Baltimore's vaunted defense did its part by forcing five turnovers, which helped overcome the two by the Ravens. The Chiefs' lack of postseason experience (they were making their first playoff appearance since 2006) was another factor. Their quarterback, Matt Cassel, was making his first postseason start since high school, and it showed as he threw for only 70 yards, was intercepted three times, and finished with a passer rating of 20.4.

But even in making his sixth NFL playoff start, Flacco wasn't exactly seen as giving the Ravens an overwhelming advantage at quarterback. Despite having the best statistical regular season of his pro career, his postseason passing numbers before Sunday raised legitimate concerns about whether he'd be up to the task of delivering when it counted the most: 57-for-120, an average of 132 yards per game, one touchdown, six interceptions, and a 46.5 passer rating.

They overshadowed the fact that the Ravens had won three playoff games with Flacco as their starter. However, the fourth victory made a pretty solid argument that Baltimore isn't making this run with another "game manager" behind center as it did in winning Super Bowl XXXV with Trent Dilfer, or when it reached the '08 AFC Championship Game at Pittsburgh at the end of Flacco's rookie year. Flacco looked like a genuine difference-maker in throwing for 265 yards and two touchdowns, with no interceptions, to lead the Ravens to 27 unanswered points after they fell behind, 7-3, in the first quarter.

And Flacco, who tends to be an emotional dial tone when dealing with the media, knew it.

"It's a lot of fun to come on the road in places like this and just be confident in yourself, be confident in your teammates, that you're going to come and get the job done," he said.

It's safe to say the Ravens' offense wouldn't have gone very far if Flacco hadn't done his part of the job as effectively as he did. Through three quarters, their running backs produced a grand total of 38 yards. The Chiefs' pass rush, led by outside linebacker Tamba Hali, pretty much had its way with the right side of the Ravens' offensive line. Flacco was sacked four times and fumbled twice (losing one).

But he also showed something for which he has never been known: Good mobility. Flacco moved well enough to buy himself time and had seven carries for 26 yards, half coming on a 13-yard scramble that helped set up his scoring throw to Ray Rice to put the Ravens in front for good in the second quarter.

"He did a good job of staying in the pocket and avoiding some sacks," Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson said. "It was hard to get him down. His feet helped him stay on the field."

It was the sort of game that should have given Flacco's teammates, especially the veterans, a reason to believe they have the necessary key ingredient to reach the Super Bowl: A quarterback capable of making big plays. Tight end Todd Heap, who caught 10 passes for 108 yards against the Chiefs, insisted he wasn't in need of any convincing before Sunday. He also didn't think Flacco required any sort of self-confidence boost.

"The guy has come in and taken us deep in the playoffs," Heap said. "I think he takes (his previous postseason struggles) with a grain of salt because he has so much confidence in himself. I think it's just a matter of putting all the things together."

That is likely to be much more difficult when the Ravens face the Steelers on Saturday. Flacco already has one victory at Heinz Field this season. He even made the winning throw in the final seconds of the Ravens' Week 4 triumph.

Of course, regardless of the outcome, that will be quickly forgotten if Flacco reverts to the playoff form he showed before facing the Chiefs.

Observation points

» Even if the report by a Kansas City radio station that Chiefs coach Todd Haley took over the play-calling from outgoing offensive coordinator Charlie Weis in the second half against the Ravens isn't true, it is a sign of how hungry the media is to confirm the widely reported rift that prompted Weis' decision to bolt.

If Haley did decide that the Chiefs were better off with him calling the plays, that's clearly his right as head coach. But it also could easily be viewed as a sign of panic in his first playoff game as a head coach. Weis' lame-duck status wasn't ideal, but his track record would strongly indicate he would be professional enough to finish strong in one job before going onto another. That certainly was the case when he was guiding the New England Patriots' offense on the way to a Super Bowl victory after accepting the head-coaching job at Notre Dame. Weis had many more distractions then, too, as he had to assemble a coaching staff and recruit players.

One thing is certain: Among the worst decisions of the wild-card round (after Indianapolis Colts coach Jim Caldwell decided to call a timeout as the New York Jets marched for what would be the winning field goal) was the Chiefs' running an unsuccessful sweep on fourth-and-short early in the second half.

The guess here is that Weis would gladly give Haley credit for that one.

» Still not getting why Rex Ryan insists on poking that stick in the face of every tiger he sees.

» I'm not seeing what all the media fuss was about over the Miami Dolphins' interest in hiring Jim Harbaugh as their coach while Tony Sparano still had the job.

Was it handled poorly? Yes. Owner Stephen Ross admitted as much to reporters on Saturday. Beyond that, however, I don't see it as having disastrous consequences. Ross said he never offered a contract to Harbaugh (reportedly for an NFL record of $8-million per season), and, instead, urged him to remain at Stanford. But even if you don't choose to take him at his word, Ross certainly made a convincing statement by giving Sparano a two-year extension worth a reported $6 million.

That's more than a make-up gift for the man that presumably was left twisting in the wind as his boss sought to replace him with the first "hot" candidate (Jon Gruden and Bill Cowher supposedly were among the prospects) that would agree to come aboard. The deal goes a long way toward reducing the potential for players to assume their head coach's authority is lacking because he doesn't have the owner's full support.

» It looks as if the Carolina Panthers are about to hire another defensive-minded head coach in Ron Rivera. Rivera's work as defensive coordinator for the San Diego Chargers certainly makes him worthy of consideration. But does it really make sense for a team whose major issue is its quarterback situation and overall improvement of its offense to go defense again?

» There was a poignant scene after the Ravens-Chiefs game that brought some perspective to the extreme levels of anger/frustration/depression that losing can cause in the NFL … especially during the playoffs.

No one felt worse about the Chiefs' humiliating defeat than their general manager, Scott Pioli. Yet, a little more than an hour after the final play, on the field of what by then was an empty Arrowhead Stadium, there was Pioli and his young daughter tossing around a football. They tossed it back and forth while jogging the length of the field. Then, Pioli stood behind a goal post as his daughter tried -- and several times successfully -- to heave the ball over the crossbar.

Watching through my binoculars from the press box high above, I made a point of focusing on Pioli's face. The man was smiling the whole time.

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Divisional-round team rankings

1. New England: The march to another Super Bowl win begins.
2. Green Bay: The Packers look like the most dangerous team left from the wild-card round.
3. Atlanta: Sound and steady could take this club all the way to Dallas.
4. Pittsburgh: These guys have had to overcome a lot, but they look like the real deal.
5. Baltimore: Flacco has taken a big step in the postseason, although bigger ones will likely be needed.
6. N.Y. Jets: You have to hand it to Mark Sanchez for stepping up when the Jets needed it the most.
7. Chicago: As long as Jay Cutler doesn't have a meltdown, the Bears will have something to say about who wins the NFC.
8. Seattle: So what was it that so many people were saying about a 7-9 team having no place in the postseason?

Follow Vic Carucci on Twitter @viccarucci.

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