FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The NFL, already regarded as a quarterback’s league, celebrated the arrival of new blood — and a new breed — of signal-callers this fall, especially in the NFC.
Russell Wilson of Seattle, Robert Griffin III of Washington and Colin Kaepernick of San Francisco brought an exciting, almost reckless, brand of football that translated into winning seasons. Their ability to throw and run pushed all three teams into the playoffs, with San Francisco advancing to the NFC title game Sunday at Atlanta.
But in the AFC, two old-school pocket passers will match up as Tom Brady and the New England Patriots take on Joe Flacco and the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC championship game at Gillette Stadium, with the winner going to the Super Bowl on Feb. 3 in New Orleans.
It’s the second consecutive year that the teams — and these quarterbacks — meet in the title game.
And while it may seem like a mismatch at the position, it might be closer than anyone would like to think.
Yes, Brady has proven himself countless times: most playoff wins (17) of any starting quarterback in NFL history, winner of three Super Bowl titles, twice the Super Bowl MVP, winner of five AFC titles. He is hailed by many as the measuring stick for today’s quarterbacks.
But Flacco is no slouch when it comes to the playoffs either. He is the only quarterback in NFL history to win at least one playoff game in each of his first five seasons in the league, with a 7-4 record. While Brady is playing in his seventh AFC title game in 11 years, Flacco is playing in his third in five.
The Ravens certainly feel comfortable with him behind center.
“Joe Flacco is truly our leader,” said Ray Rice, the Ravens’ star running back. “Not only has he taken the role of our leader, but he is leading us down this whole stretch He does everything he needs to do as a quarterback.”
And in the end, it will be the play of the quarterbacks that determines who advances.
The Patriots know what they are facing: a strong-armed, big (6-foot-6, 245 pounds), poised quarterback who throws the long ball as well as anyone in the league. The Ravens are averaging 20.4 yards per catch in the playoffs, while Flacco has thrown five touchdowns (of 20, 18, 59, 32 and 70 yards) with no interceptions.
“He is a great quarterback,” said Vince Wilfork, the Patriots’ 6-foot-2, 325-pound man-mountain in the middle of the defensive line. “I don’t care what anybody says about him. The one thing he does is he stays poised, no matter how bad things get or how good things are.”
The Ravens also know what they’re facing: A well-prepared, big (6-4, 225 pounds) poised quarterback who directs a high-octane offense that gasses opposing defenses. The Patriots ran 1,191 plays this year, most in the NFL, playing at a staggering pace.
“He is who he is,” said Dean Pees, the Ravens’ defensive coordinator who previously held that position for three years with the Patriots. “I went up against him up there in practice for six years. He’s as competitive of a person as I’ve ever been around. He can give you this little boyish look on TV, but he is a very, very, very competitive guy. He didn’t even like losing in practice.”
While everyone agrees that Brady is heading to the Hall of Fame, Flacco is still building an already-impressive resume.
He had perhaps his best season yet, throwing for a career-best 3,817 yards passing, with 22 touchdowns and a career-low 10 interceptions. The Ravens ranked third in the NFL this year in plays of 20 or more yards, with 72. Of those, 62 were passes, with 11 going for touchdowns.
His performance in last week’s AFC division-round 38-35 double-overtime win over the top-ranked Denver Broncos and Peyton Manning, when he threw for 331 yards and three touchdowns, including a stunning 70-yarder to Jacoby Jones in the final seconds to send the game into overtime, certainly opened some eyes.
“You can look at Joe’s track record,” said retiring linebacker Ray Lewis. “Joe has progressed every year, he has gotten better every year. He is growing up right before our eyes and no matter how big the game is, the game never gets too big for Joe. Joe is just Joe, and having a big game like last week, hopefully, is a great carryover to this week.
“He has a great opportunity to etch his name into the record books of going and doing something in the playoffs that no quarterback has ever done. I’m just glad to be along for the ride.”
Of course, even Lewis knows that no matter how well Flacco plays Sunday, if Brady plays like Brady can, it will be tough to beat the Patriots.
“Playing against Brady and just watching him sometimes,” said Lewis, “you’re always in awe, watching how good he really is.”
Brady may not have Flacco’s arm strength, but his decision-making is unmatched. He always seems to find the open receiver. And on Sunday, he’ll likely be targeting Lewis often. While Lewis leads the Ravens with 30 tackles in two playoff games, he has had trouble in the passing game. Manning and Andy Dalton of Cincinnati have targeted him 17 times, completing 14 passes for 177 yards, according to Matt Vensel of the Baltimore Sun.
Look for Brady to be looking for that matchup throughout Sunday’s game.
Bill Belichick, the Patriots’ head coach, has often said that there is no other quarterback he’d rather have than Brady. But he knows better than to overlook Flacco.
While Flacco may not have the best statistics, he does well in stats that matter. Belichick noted that Flacco doesn’t turn the ball over much — the Ravens had 16 turnovers this year, the same as New England — and that he makes big plays and the Ravens score points.
“It’s about points,” said Belichick. “Not all the other stats that we sometimes like to throw out there I think if you’re scoring points, you’re not turning the ball over, then you’re probably playing pretty well.”
There is one other factor in this week’s game to be considered: Flacco was on the cover — at least in the Eastern half of the U.S. — of Sports Illustrated. Fans in Baltimore are already worrying about the SI cover jinx. It was only the second time in Flacco’s career that he had been on the cover — Brady, conversely, has been on it more than 20 times — and the first time (in 2001) was followed by a thumping loss.
“I hope not,” said Flacco when asked about a possible jinx. “It just depends on how we go play on Sunday. We’ll see.”
Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at: