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Flacco is poised for next step

Last year’s playoff run was valuable experience

By Michael Vega
Globe Staff / January 7, 2010

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OWINGS MILLS, Md. - Joe Flacco was standing on the sideline at the Ravens’ indoor practice facility yesterday, talking with a few reporters about his comfort level in the playoffs and how “every regular-season game is just as important’’ as Sunday’s wild-card matchup against the Patriots at Gillette Stadium, when the conversation was interrupted by teammate Trevor Pryce.

“Yeah, but can Joe Flacco do this?’’ said the hulking defensive end, who took a football and launched a spiral at the goal posts that bounced off the crossbar, hitting it squarely in the middle.

Flacco smiled, shook his head, and chuckled. “How lucky is that?’’ he said.

Baltimore’s second-year quarterback was not about to fight fire with fire. He didn’t feel compelled to answer Pryce’s challenge. It was a no-win proposition. After all, he knows who is the real quarterback of this team. It was a quiet confidence that stemmed from the experience Flacco gained last season, when he led the Ravens to the AFC Championship game.

What will Flacco be expected to do for an encore?

“That’s kind of the big picture comparison,’’ said Ravens coach John Harbaugh. “How can he do better? But within the way he plays, he can do a lot better. That goes for all our players.

“It’s really not from last year to this year, as much as it is from last week to this week. You just try to make your improvement from one week to the next and play the best football game you can against the team you’re playing - which is a huge challenge this week - and see what happens.’’

But can he take the Ravens a step further, to the Super Bowl?

“Oh, I think we obviously feel like that,’’ said Flacco, who this season completed 315 of 499 passes for 3,613 yards with 21 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. “I don’t think you ever go into the playoffs thinking that we want to get in the playoffs and lose, or that we want to get in the playoffs and win one game.

“You want to win all four - or three, if you get a bye. That’s what we’re thinking right now. We want to win four games. And it starts by going on the road to New England and beating them.’’

The Ravens failed in that endeavor Oct. 4, when they suffered a 27-21 setback in Foxborough.

Flacco attempted a season-high 47 passes in that game, completing 27 for 264 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Needing a touchdown in the closing minutes, Flacco marched the Ravens 66 yards, converting five first downs, in a three-minute drive that stalled at the Patriots’ 14, where Mark Clayton dropped a pass on fourth down.

“Back then, I’m sure we felt like we were good enough to win the game, but that’s way behind us now,’’ Flacco said. “It’s not going to have any factor in this game. It was a while ago.

“We’re both kind of different teams and we both feel like we’re playing pretty well, so it’s just about going in there and playing with confidence and just improving on the things we’ve been doing the last couple of weeks.

“We’ve definitely shown that we can go in there and play a good game. We just have to show that we can go in there and beat ’em, which we haven’t necessarily done yet.’’

While they’ve struggled on the road this season, the Patriots are 8-0 at home. They’ve been particularly tough in Foxborough during the playoffs, winning 11 straight. If the Ravens hope to snap that streak, they don’t need their second-year quarterback to be Joe Schmo, Joe Blow, or even Joe Montana.

“He got us to the AFC Championship game,’’ said veteran Ravens wideout Derrick Mason. “He understands the magnitude of the playoffs. He understands how to play in the playoffs.

“So I’m just looking for him to go out there and be himself. Don’t try to do more than what he has [to do], because he has 10 other guys who are out there helping him.

“I know he doesn’t feel that he has to win this game by himself. He’s going to go in there and just be the quarterback he’s been the whole season.’’

Asked about the playoff pressure his 24-year-old quarterback has faced, Harbaugh said, “He’s obviously handled it well. Joe is not a guy that gets intimidated, obviously. He’s very tough, he’s very competitive, he’s very smart. He’s got talent, and he’s got a lot of confidence in his ability.

“But that doesn’t substitute experience, and he’s still a very young quarterback in this league.’’

When Flacco heard Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis describe Tom Brady yesterday as “arguably one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time’’ and a “true professional in the way he plays the game,’’ he didn’t necessarily take it as a subtle challenge to match Brady throw for throw or yard for yard.

“It’s not one-on-one with Tom Brady,’’ Flacco said. “I want to be the greatest quarterback of all time, but it’s got to come naturally. It’s got to come with time. It’s not going to be because I beat Tom Brady in one playoff game. We’re going up there to beat the New England Patriots and we’re going up there as a team, and that’s the bottom line.’’

But make no mistake, the Joe Flacco who arrives in Foxborough Sunday won’t be any different from the one who showed up in October. He’ll still be unflappable and ready to sling it, if that’s what the game plan calls for.

“I think I’ve got more of a comfort level now, because I’ve played more games and I’ve got more experience,’’ Flacco said. “But I don’t know if winning playoff games last year does anything or not, we’ll see.

“But like I’ve said, I really feel comfortable and that’s the end of the story. I feel comfortable and I feel ready to go.’’

Michael Vega can be reached at vega@globe.com.

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