This story appears in the Jan. 21, 2013 issue of Sports Illustrated. Buy the digital version of the magazine here.
There is something to be gained from watching football at ground level, especially from the end zone behind the offense as a play unfolds. What you see, mostly, is how difficult the game is, how fast it moves, and how singularly challenging it is to play quarterback, out of all the positions in sports. With less than a minute to go in regulation of last Saturday's AFC divisional playoff round in Denver, facing third-and-three at his own 30 yard line with no timeouts left, and trailing the Broncos 35--28, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco picked himself up following a seven-yard scramble and listened to the play call from offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell. "Scat Right 99," Caldwell said.
Four verticals, Flacco thought. Four receivers -- two right, two left -- running go routes, with Ray Rice trolling underneath as the safety valve out of the backfield. Not much time to think. Flacco knew that Rice would be open; he's always open. But he also knew he had reached the moment of truth in Baltimore's season, and it was not a time to think about safety valves. He was thinking, I hope one of my guys gets one step ahead of one of their corners.
In the seconds before the snap, the crowd sounded frenetic in the -2° wind chill. Broncos defenders ran about, pointing and arranging coverage. No such frantic movement from Flacco, though. Standing alone at the 25, waiting for the shotgun snap, he may have been the calmest guy in the place.
"You better have guts to play the quarterback position," Flacco's backup, Tyrod Taylor, said afterward. "In the middle of everything going on out there, you better not be afraid. You'll fail."
There has always been a calm about Flacco. Calm in the face of criticism that he's a B-minus quarterback, and in the face of -incredulity -- both inside and outside the Ravens' -organization -- over his turning down a big-money extension entering this season, the final year of his contract. Calm in the big moments of violent games against the archrival Steelers, and in practices when the mouthy Ravens defense never shuts up. That's what Baltimore's coaches and players noticed when he got to his first training camp in 2008. In one of Flacco's first padded practices, Ray Lewis crept close to the line and began shouting out distracting phony signals. The QB stood behind center, lips sealed, waiting for Lewis to shut up, as if to say, Are you quite finished? Then Flacco ran his play. "Around here," former offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said that afternoon, "the days when the defense pushes around the offense are over."
Flacco has had more than a few good moments in the subsequent five seasons. Would you be surprised to know that at 61-30 -- four wins better than Aaron Rodgers -- he's the winningest quarterback since 2008, when he entered the NFL? That he's started all 91 games, including playoffs, from the day he was drafted? That he's the only passer in NFL history to win a postseason game in each of his first five seasons? Because Flacco's numbers are pedestrian -- he's never had a 4,000-yard season or a passer rating above 94.0 -- Football Nation thinks he's just another guy. Not that he cares. Says center Matt Birk, "When you talk about Joe's accomplishments, I can promise you he's the least impressed with them."
But in a just-move-the-chains-baby league, Flacco's inarguably the best deep-ball thrower in football now. Through 18 games this year, including the playoffs, Pro Football Focus charts him as having the most completions that travel at least 20 yards past the line of scrimmage (44), the most yards on 20-plus-yard throws (1,442) and the most touchdowns on those deep strikes (15). And of his 105 long attempts this year, zero have been intercepted. Consider all that when taking in Flacco's Saturday cool.
Walking out of the tunnel before the game, Lewis tapped him on the shoulder pads.
"You're our general now," said the retiring one. "Lead us. Lead us!"
Forty-one seconds to go. "I wasn't happy with a few of my decisions earlier in the game," says Flacco. "A couple of times, I found myself thinking, Damn Joe! What are you doing?" Now the Ravens were set in the four-across formation: Torrey Smith and Jacoby Jones as the outside speed guys; trusted veteran Anquan Boldin and tight end Dennis Pitta inside. Flacco saw Denver would be rushing three, with a linebacker to his left covering Rice and seven men deep in coverage. Three safeties sat at least 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage, fanned out for all contingencies. The free safety wide to Flacco's right, Rahim Moore, was a couple of yards shallower than the safety aligned in the middle.
Veteran center Matt Birk snapped to Flacco, and chaos ensued.
From a vantage point 35 yards directly behind where Flacco received the snap, you could see defensive end Elvis Dumervil whiz by left tackle Bryant McKinnie. While stepping up to avoid Dumervil, Flacco stared downfield, hoping to find a receiver who'd gained an edge on his cover man. Now defensive end Robert Ayers burrowed in toward Flacco, and the quarterback wriggled away from Ayers's pressure, still scanning the secondary. From field level the mosaic was difficult to read, just as it was for the desperate QB in the busy pocket. But there was Rice, free for the first down.
Some quarterbacks put off the big shot. Some would think it better to take the sure thing -- to be within 60 yards with a fresh set of downs -- than risk it all for a prayer thrown into double coverage.
"I knew I had Ray," says Flacco. "But when you've got 40 seconds left, no timeouts, and you're 70 yards away, you can't think about the first down. You've got to think about taking shots. Five yards? That's a waste; not worth the time. When I looked down the right side, I saw Jacoby with a step on his guy, and I saw the safety [Moore] sort of leveled off, slow coming over. That was my shot."
"The safety did a bad job tracking that ball," says Taylor, Flacco's locker room neighbor in Denver on Saturday. "You could see he was out of position."
Indeed, Moore had stared too long into the backfield instead of backpedaling into position to help corner Tony Carter. By the time Flacco set to throw at the 25, he knew he had to take the deep shot, a play that would match for pressure and downfield traffic the impossible pass that Eli Manning heaved down the left side to Mario Manningham in the Super Bowl last year. There is a flash of purple uniform slightly behind the corner, and the safety is spotted a second late in moving into coverage. From field level it is a murky mess with no certainty. Just a gut feeling.
"And some luck," says Flacco. As he wound up, linebacker Von Miller, the last threat to disrupt the throw, lunged at the QB, but he got pushed off track by Birk. "I had a chance to hit his arm and swat the ball," says Miller, "but I jumped too early and misjudged it." By that time, Flacco was in full throwing motion.
Says Jones, who caught only 30 passes all year, "All I could think of was, Joe might actually throw me this ball."
"The ball's in the air, and the safety's late coming over," adds Birk, "and I'm saying, Oh, my God! It's got a chance!"
Why wouldn't Flacco be confident as the play developed? One thing Lewis had harped on to his teammates -- he is Baltimore's unofficial speechmaker, often making more than one a week -- is that they had to treat Saturday's game against a heavily favored top seed as David versus Goliath. Don't just compete in a slow-and-steady way; come out attacking. To an outside observer it made no sense that Flacco would go after celebrated cornerback Champ Bailey -- the three-time All-Pro had given up only three completions of 20 yards or longer all season, playing man-up against the likes of A.J. Green, Vincent Jackson and Andre -Johnson -- but twice in the first half Flacco laid in perfect throws to Torrey Smith, for 59 and 32 yards, that went for touchdowns, both against Bailey. In total, the corner was targeted seven times and torched for five receptions, 128 yards and the two scores, by far his worst game of the season.
But because Peyton Manning had played passably and because the usually top-notch Baltimore special teams had allowed Denver's Trindon Holliday to return a punt and a kickoff for touchdowns, the Ravens found themselves down 35-28, with the ball at the Baltimore 23 and 69 seconds to go. On first down Flacco just missed Pitta about 18 yards up the right side, and he scrambled for seven yards on second. Now it was time, as the clock ticked down on the Ravens' season.
0:40 .?.?. 0:39 .?.?. 0:38.?.?.?.
Miller's lunge had forced the trajectory of Flacco's throw higher than usual, and the ball hung up in the night air. Carter slowed for no apparent reason; Jones began tracking the pass on its cross-stadium flight; and Moore sprinted into the fray. The ball landed in Jones's arms as Moore desperately and awkwardly flailed for it, having timed his leap, cruelly -- and familiarly, to any athlete -- a moment too soon. Flacco had covered 55 yards in the air, from his 25 to the Broncos' 20, and all you could see from the opposite end zone, 90 yards away, was one vivid image: Directly in the sight line between the end zone and the catch that will live in Baltimore sports history was Broncos safety Jim Leonhard, a former Raven, dropping suddenly to a crouch as if he'd been hit in the head with a two-by-four.
When Jones returned to the Baltimore sideline, after hugging everyone in sight, he looked into Flacco's eyes and screamed, "Smokin' Joe!"
it wasn't over. "I couldn't feel my face," says Birk, "but that was OK. We were still playing [overtime] -- and Joe was moving us. Do you know how hard it is to throw in negative wind chill?"
Nonetheless, Flacco had one more play to make. Third-and-13 from the Baltimore three, six minutes left in the first OT. The crowd -- -amazingly, there were just 129 no-shows among a freezing throng of 76,732, and it looked as if no one had left -- sensed the Broncos could win it with one more defensive stop, a Baltimore punt from deep in its territory, and a first down or two to get Denver into field goal range. Flacco sent Pitta up the right seam and threw a perfect high ball that Pitta caught over Leonhard. Gain of 24. Talking later, Flacco seemed as proud of that throw as the long TD. "It was big," he said, "because we were able to flip the field." Big is an understatement. After the Ravens eventually punted, Denver took over at its own seven .?.?. and three minutes later Manning threw his worst pass since the Tracy Porter pick in Super Bowl XLIV three years ago.
That was it. The Ravens sealed the deal on Justin Tucker's 47 yard field goal in the second minute of the sixth quarter of the fourth-longest game in NFL -history -- a four-hour, 11-minute classic. Baltimore 38, Denver 35.
"Awesome. Awesome. Awesome. Awesome," said Lewis.
The win, yes. But Flacco's January poise too. The Ravens advance to play in their second straight AFC title game at Gillette Stadium on Sunday, 364 days after the still painful first one, in which Flacco outplayed Tom Brady but lost on a dropped TD and a missed field goal. In his last three playoff games -- that one in Foxboro and the two played this month, against the Colts and the Broncos -- Flacco has thrown for 919 yards with seven touchdowns and one interception.
"Will people finally buy how good this guy is?" asks coach John Harbaugh. "I mean, we love him."
That crowd is growing.