You will hear how Sunday's AFC championship game is a fork in the road for Joe Flacco. You know the words to this song; If he leads the Ravens to victory at New England, he's just a Super Bowl win from being "elite." And if the Ravens lose, and he doesn't play well … well, don't the Ravens have something to ponder as Flacco enters the offseason with one year left on his contract?
But here's the thing: I don't believe this is a make-or-break game for Flacco. Even if he struggles Sunday, he's very likely to enter 2012 as the Ravens' starter. He has, after all, helped Baltimore to four playoff appearances, and he has played very well at times. It would be impractical to overreact to a poor performance.
And here's another thing about Joe Flacco: aside from considerable regression in his play next season, he will be someone's starter — in Baltimore or somewhere else — in 2013. Someone with his tools is going to get multiple chances to succeed.
But let's assume Flacco plays well on Sunday night. Is it a slam dunk the Ravens win? Hardly — he's facing a Tom Brady-led offense!
In the last meeting between these teams in Week Six of the 2010 season, Flacco completed 27-of-35 passes for 285 yards with a pair of TDs. But the Patriots, trailing by 10 early in the fourth quarter, stormed back to send the game into overtime, then won it in the extra period, 23-20.
So, before making Sunday's game a referendum on Joe Flacco, consider this number: 40.
That's the number of yards Flacco threw for in his lone career win over New England. Four-zero.
In that game, a 33-14 Baltimore triumph at New England in the 2009 wild-card round, Flacco threw 10 passes, completing four to the Ravens and one to the Patriots. It didn't matter. The Patriots, who lost WR Wes Welker to a season-ending injury seven days earlier, were punchless. Really, they were staggered on the game's first offensive play, as Ravens RB Ray Rice burst through the middle for an 83-yard TD run. The score was the first of three TDs and 24 total points scored by Baltimore in the first quarter.
Rice, who finished that game with 159 rushing yards and a pair of TDs, has been a challenging matchup for New England. He has averaged 145.7 total yards in three career meetings against the Patriots. The Ravens' edge in the running game is material.
But will it be enough on Sunday? Stopping Brady will be very difficult, even for a defense of the Ravens' caliber. The Patriots' offense that Baltimore shut down in '09 bears no resemblance to the powerhouse that took apart Denver on Saturday. The same can be said for the Pats' attack Baltimore faced in October 2010. The Patriots were in their first game without WR Randy Moss, and their offense wouldn't hit its stride for several more weeks.
The Ravens' defense, which has had its problems with high-powered passing games in the past, needs to be at its best Sunday for Baltimore to prevail. And Rice needs to vex the Patriots once again.
The Ravens are underdogs Sunday, as any AFC club would be in Foxborough right now. But perhaps no other conference competitor is better positioned to give the Pats a strong challenge. In the Ravens' past four meetings with New England, they have held the lead at least once in each game.
That said, the Ravens have only one win to show for their efforts. The Ravens' struggles to beat New England, combined with the Patriots' current form, makes the home side a worthy favorite Sunday.
But Baltimore should be able to trade punches with New England. Beating the Patriots is a puzzle, but it's one the Ravens are capable of solving. Solid defense and a strong running game would be key parts of a logical solution.
Flacco's play is an important part, too. But even his best won't guarantee a Ravens win vs. the Patriots. The good news? The Ravens have defeated the Patriots when he has been far from his best.