FOXBOROUGH — A year ago Joe Flacco had walked along the corridor to the visitors’ locker room along with his fellow zombies. The winning touchdown pass had been knocked away, the tying field goal had sailed wide, and a season had ended one game early. This time, it was Flacco taking a knee at Gillette Stadium and striding down the same hall into the same room as a conqueror and his jubilant teammates whooped around him.
Baltimore did it the hard way this season, stifling the Colts in the wild-card game, shocking the Broncos in double-overtime at altitude, and handing the Patriots their first home defeat in an AFC Championship game.
“It’s probably pretty sweet no matter how you do it and no matter what fashion it’s in,’’ the Ravens quarterback reckoned after he’d thrown for 240 yards and three second-half touchdowns to direct his colleagues to the Super Bowl for the first time in a dozen years with a 28-13 triumph.
Had Baltimore lost this might have been Flacco’s final game in purple after starting every one since he was drafted in 2008. He’s eligible for free agency and if his employers chose not to jack up his pay or put the franchise label on him, he likely would have been performing elsewhere next season. That still could happen, but Flacco now has at least one more assignment. “He proved he could get to the big game,’’ said receiver Torrey Smith, who caught four of Flacco’s tosses for 69 yards. “He led us.’’
No NFL quarterback ever had won six playoff games on the road and two of Flacco’s came here. When the Ravens destroyed the Patriots, 33-14, in the 2009 wild-card game and ended their 11-game postseason home win streak, Flacco was playing with a 24-0 lead after 15 minutes and needed to throw only 10 times. This time he had 36 attempts as he rallied Baltimore from a 6-point halftime deficit with 21 unanswered points.
“We were able to go down the field a handful of consecutive times and score points and that’s what we needed to do against this football team,’’ said Flacco, who posted a 106.2 rating. “We needed to put pressure on them like that and it worked pretty well.’’
After Flacco drove his Angry Birds 87 yards for the go-ahead touchdown to tight end Dennis Pitta with 6:14 to play in the third quarter, he kept attacking, tossing two more to Anquan Boldin early in the fourth.
“I think he played phenomenal all the way around,’’ saluted Patriots linebacker Brandon Spikes. “He kept his guys [in line] with poise and he did a great job trying to find a hole. He got the opportunity to make plays, my hat goes off to him.’’
That was no surprise to the Ravens, who’ve dubbed Flacco “The General’’ for his command qualities under fire even while critics don’t include him among the league’s top signal-callers.
“He’s not concerned about what people think about him,’’ said center Matt Birk. “He doesn’t read the papers. He doesn’t watch ESPN. That’s a great trait to have and a great guy to have leading your team.’’
When Flacco came off the field with 2:11 to play and a 15-point lead after taking more than four minutes off the clock, he already was celebrating.
“It seemed like we were going to go,’’ he said. Then he saw Tom Brady with the ball and did the math. Two touchdowns and a couple of 2-point conversions weren’t inconceivable.
“We got pretty confident over there but at some point I tried to tone down the celebration a little bit just in case something like that did happen,’’ Flacco said.
Then cornerback Cary Williams picked off Brady in the end zone and this time it was Flacco taking a knee.
“It was pretty awesome,’’ he proclaimed. “We were here last [year] and we thought we had one, but we came up a little bit short.’’
This time the Ravens had more than enough and their field general was getting the five-star treatment in the middle of a raucous locker room. “You need Secret Service?’’ linebacker Terrell Suggs inquired.