OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Before the game, no one on the Baltimore Ravens offense knew what the first play of the season was going to be.
So the message they sent with it, in that sense, was unintentional. But it was a message nonetheless.
Quarterback Joe Flacco faked a handoff to running back Ray Rice, and the Cincinnati Bengals couldn’t be blamed for biting on it. Rice ran for 1,364 yards last season, second in the NFL, and overall he accounted for 2,068 of the Ravens’ 5,419 yards.
But the play wasn’t for Rice. It was for Flacco.
The quarterback rolled right and came up gunning, airing it out for Torrey Smith, who was well behind the Bengals cornerback.
“He just dialed it up,” Smith said.
Fifty-two yards later, the point was clear: This was Flacco’s show.
“It was a big game, the crowd was in it, it was a big play for us,” Smith said. “Obviously it got us to start off the season the right way. Offensively, it was momentum right off the top.
“It just shows it’s something we can do. We can strike quick.”
From the time Baltimore took Flacco with a first-round pick in 2008 to the time he took the team to the AFC Championship game last season, the Ravens have supported him as their quarterback.
He has given them results.
He’s the only quarterback to take a team to the playoffs each of his first four seasons. Over that span, he has won 44 regular-season games, tops in the league. Coming into this season, he was already the leading passer in team history, but after the show he put on against the Bengals (21 of 29, 299 yards, 2 touchdowns), Flacco put more room between himself and Kyle Boller, a forgettable No. 2.
“This is Joe’s offense,” Rice said. “I think he’s taking that role, being the quarterback of this offense, and we rally behind him. So when he starts lighting people up, we just have to keep going and rally behind him.”
In almost every chapter of Ravens history, the leaders have come from the defense — from perennials like Ray Lewis and Ed Reed to Hall of Famers like Rod Woodson and Deion Sanders to grinders like Tony Siragusa.
Even last season, the undisputed front man for a team that went 12-4 was pass rusher Terrell Suggs, not just the league’s Defensive Player of the Year but the guy who has largely shaped the high-decibel personality of the Ravens locker room.
But if there is a younger set of voices that carries weight, it’s Flacco, Rice, and left tackle Michael Oher, the keys to the offense.
“Everybody has one common goal: We just want to win and we want to win a championship,” Oher said. “Joe’s a guy that we look to to lead us. He’s obviously a great quarterback, won a lot of games, a fearless guy.
“Joe’s a solid quarterback. I always feel like he plays great. I wouldn’t take anybody over him. He’s a tough, hard-nosed guy, loves to compete, and wants to be the best at his position.”
This is where the debate typically begins.
A year ago, Flacco was under the same hot lamp as the 49ers’ Alex Smith and the Jets’ Mark Sanchez, even though his numbers have been far superior. They were all widely viewed as liabilities to their teams in some way.
Now Flacco wants to be to the Ravens what Eli Manning is to the Giants — a quarterback who knows he’s among the league’s finest, no matter how much outsiders doubt him.
Flacco threw for 3,610 yards and 20 touchdowns last season, but would ultimately be judged by the AFC Championship game against the Patriots and Tom Brady.
If the duel were judged strictly on statistics, then it was Flacco’s by decision. They both threw 36 times, and both completed 22 passes. But Flacco went for 306 yards to Brady’s 239; Flacco threw two touchdowns to Brady’s none; Flacco threw one interception to Brady’s two.
But the game wasn’t won by the lines on the score sheet.
“We didn’t win the game,” Flacco said. “So it doesn’t really matter what people say about that.”
After the loss in the AFC title game, Lewis threw his support behind Flacco.
“I have always backed Joe in whatever it is,” Lewis said. “If Joe had his choice — I will speak for him on this — to not outduel Brady and win, I think he would take that over everything else.”
Seeing Brady again this weekend, the opportunity will be there even if the stakes won’t be as high.
“I think everybody puts so much pressure on Joe and everything is about Joe, but it’s a team thing,” Lewis said. “It’s not about him going up against Brady this week. It’s about the Ravens going against the Patriots.
“If we can come out on the victorious side, then I think Joe will take that over stats any day.”Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @julianbenbow.