The general sentiment around the league about Ravens QB Joe Flacco is that he is as "average as the day is long," as one personnel director described the fastball-throwing pocket passer following last week's come-from-behind win over Arizona.
"He has never won the big game," Flacco's detractors say. Many evaluators believe that the Ravens will only go as far as their quarterback takes them, and he's not as thick-skinned and nuanced as Trent Dilfer was when the Ravens last won a Super Bowl on the foundation of a dominant defense. That defense remains very much in place, with game-changing difference makers at every level.
Other evaluators look at Anquan Boldin's lack of foot speed, Torrey Smith's shaky hands and Lee Evans' injury absence and question whether Flacco has enough weapons to run the vertical design of Cam Cameron's offense.
Where does the answer lie?
It might be somewhere in between, but after Flacco commanded the game-winning drive against an intimidating Pittsburgh defense in the final two minutes, going back to Smith after he let a well-placed pass over his shoulder slide through his hands two plays earlier, Flacco is proving his harshest critics wrong. And he's showing signs of uncovering from his quiet, soft-spoken exterior and inching closer to becoming a Super Bowl-caliber quarterback.
Known for his monotone style of play and emotionless on-field demeanor, Flacco lit up after the TD, brazenly letting it loose in celebration and barking at Ray Lewis before bump-chesting him on the sideline after OG Marshal Yanda airlifted him in celebration on the field.
The defining trademark of great quarterbacks is their ability to convert third downs in pressure situations on the biggest of stages. Few stages are bigger than prime-time television on Sunday night at a raucous Heinz Field against an aggressive, blitz-intensive Dick LeBeau defense. For Flacco to move the ball 92 yards on the final drive, rally the Ravens from a four-point deficit and convert 14-of-21 third downs for the game speaks to his developing confidence as a quarterback.
With the game on the line, he did not take the needless sacks that he did in early in his career. He felt pressure in the pocket well and picked apart a surprisingly conservative defense. The Steelers were without two of their Pro Bowl-caliber linebackers, LaMarr Woodley and James Farrior, and James Harrison was returning from an extended absence. The lifeblood of the Steelers' defense was missing in action.
Nonetheless, Flacco came through in the clutch, exploiting the Steelers' two weakest coverage defenders, William Gay and Ryan Clark, and captured his second victory over the Steelers this season. If he can continue building on the Ravens' most convincing win of the season and Smith can continue gaining confidence in his hands (after body-catching the game-winning TD pass), the Ravens could be the team to beat in the AFC.
• With the Ravens' victory and the nearly perfect season of the 49ers comes great anticipation of the "Harbaugh Bowl" that will be played on Thanksgiving night. The brothers field similar squads, known for grind-it-out, physical running games and hard-hitting, smash-mouth defenses. The way Jim Harbaugh has orchestrated the San Francisco offense for Alex Smith has produced one of the most remarkable changes in any player this season. Smith's improvement could be traced not so much to what he is doing as much as what he is not. He has yet to record a great statistical performance, with many simple reads designed for him to get rid of the ball quickly or throw it away, resulting in a high number of incompletions, but also very few interceptions. Where Smith has gotten into the most trouble in the past is when he has held on to the ball too long and tried to create, which too often resulted in sacks, fumbles, interceptions and costly, momentum-changing turnovers. Under Harbaugh's direction, the game has become easy for Smith. He's not trying to do too much. He's making very good decisions (10-2 TD-to-interception ratio), and letting Frank Gore and his supporting cast do the rest. When he has held on to the ball, as he did midway through the first quarter, he wound up getting blind-sided by Redskins OLB Ryan Kerrigan and sped up his trigger the rest of the game. Jim Harbaugh easily has done one of the finest coaching jobs of any coach in the league.
• Houston RB Arian Foster started the season slowly as he was nursing a hamstring injury and did not look like himself after initially returning to the lineup, hitting holes more gingerly than he did a year ago. However, at the midway mark against Cleveland, he looked like the Foster of 2010 that led the NFL in rushing and appears to be fully lathered for the second half of the season when the Texans could use him most. The Texans have long struggled to knock Peyton Manning off the top of the AFC South hill, but Houston now stands out in a class of its own in the division and is very well-positioned for a high playoff seed with a weak schedule remaining.
• Raiders QB Carson Palmer looked surprisingly comfortable early against Denver after having two weeks to digest the game plan, but when he was needed most late in the game, the offense fell apart, as the Raiders handed a game to the Broncos in a week when San Diego and Kansas City both lost. Injuries have greatly taken a toll on the Chargers, who stayed competitive with the Packers to the very end in an offensive shootout between two of the game's best offensive minds, Norv Turner and Mike McCarthy. The Chiefs carried their four-game winning streak into a short week, ran out of tricks and seemed emotionally spent against a hungry Dolphins team that fields far more talent than its previously winless record indicated. The Dolphins did not leave late leads to chance the way they did against the Broncos and Giants the last two weeks. In the first contest pitting the two former Bill Parcells prodigies against one another, Tony Sparano made a statement against Todd Haley, another former Cowboys colleague, producing the most lopsided victory of the week. It marks the third four-TD loss by Haley this season, with two others coming against Buffalo and Detroit in the opening weeks, a big reason speculation quickly mounted about how long he would survive.
• The Bears and Eagles are both riding a lot of momentum into Monday night's matchup, with Bears QB Jay Cutler vastly having improved his mechanics in the two wins prior to the team's bye, and the Eagles showing improvement on defense. Eagles DT Cullen Jenkins and DE Jason Babin have been very disruptive and with an injured Trent Cole having returned to the lineup, what has been a more fortified Bears offensive line of late will be severely tested. The explosive speed of DeSean Jackson and quick-cutting, misdirection runs of LeSean McCoy also could test the Bears' aggressive defense.
• Devin Hester, look out. In only eight games, Patrick Peterson has found the endzone three times as a punt returner and possesses even more rare speed and better run strength than the dynamic Hester, who is more slippery and difficult to wrap in the open field. They both possess exceptional vision, traffic burst and playmaking skill. While Hester rewrites the NFL's return records, Peterson easily could be right on his heels in years to come. All special-teams coaches would be wise to avoid both, as the Rams tired, overmatched punt-cover team surely will not forget after Peterson's game-winning 99-yard TD return in overtime.