NEW ORLEANS -- The "Is Joe Flacco elite?" debate is now irrelevant.
No matter where you want to rank Flacco on the NFL's quarterbacking totem pole, the oft-criticized Baltimore quarterback is now a Super Bowl champion and MVP.
In four playoff games this season, Flacco threw 11 touchdown passes to no interceptions, capped off by Sunday's three-TD, no-pick performance to lead Baltimore to a thrilling 34-31 win. He did so despite often having to slip away from the 49ers' pass rush, which on more than a few occasions burst through the line into the backfield.
The Flacco naysayers will point to the second half, when the Ravens offense started skidding to a halt after Jacoby Jones' 108-yard kickoff return. It's true: Baltimore scored just six points after that and the 49ers came within five yards of taking the lead in the game's closing moments.
But the Ravens still had a tiny cushion at that point because Flacco picked apart the San Francisco defense in the first half, hitting Anquan Boldin on a beautiful 13-yard TD early, sneaking one in to Dennis Pitta for a 14-3 lead, then dropping a ridiculous deep ball to Jones on a 56-yard score late in the half.
Flacco also delivered a couple of huge first-down pickups in the second half -- plays that, if nothing else, kept the clocking moving.
The best of those was a 15-yarder to Boldin on 3rd-and-1 with seven minutes left and Baltimore up two. Boldin made a sensational grab there, but the play call itself certainly speaks volumes about the Ravens' QB. According to John Harbaugh, Flacco had the freedom to make that call at the line in a choice between three plays, and his gutsy decision wound up paying major dividends.
Flacco no doubt will wind up collecting a huge new contract this offseason, one that will keep him in Baltimore for years to come. For the first time in maybe his entire career, it will be hard to question the Ravens' commitment to him.
First Down: Anquan Boldin.
Flacco may have been the game MVP. Heck, Flacco may have been the Ravens' playoff MVP. He does not end the season raising the Vince Lombardi Trophy, though, without an incredible resurgence from Boldin.
The veteran wide receiver had three touchdowns and 16 catches over Baltimore's first three playoff wins. He followed up Sunday by hauling in six balls for 104 yards and a TD. Without his third-down snatch to move the chains in the fourth quarter, there's a pretty high probability that the 49ers ride their momentum to a lead.
Instead, Boldin pulled the ball out of the air despite tight coverage from Carlos Rogers. Time and again Flacco looked to Boldin on Sunday, and Boldin did not disappoint.
Fourth Down: San Francisco's late play-calling.
Let's see if we have this straight ...
The 49ers capture an NFC West title and a conference crown taking advantage of Colin Kaepernick's athletic, creative ways. Then, Sunday, after falling behind by 22 in the third quarter, San Francisco turned Kaepernick loose -- and the second-year quarterback consistently found holes in Baltimore's defense, both through the air and with his legs.
So, with three plays to gain five yards in the final two minutes of the Super Bowl, the 49ers totally change their approach?
Kaepernick sprinted right on second down, with no room to run, and fired an incompletion. He then sat in the pocket on third down for another incompletion and attempted a difficult fade to Michael Crabtree on fourth. Not once did Kaepernick look to take off or turn and give the ball to Frank Gore.
Instead of continuing to pressure the Ravens' defense on the edges, the 49ers played right into their hands. It was a baffling sequence of play calls that San Francisco may second-guess for eternity.
First Down: Jacoby Jones.
Earlier this week, during one of his team's media sessions, San Francisco assistant special teams coach Tracy Smith said of Jacoby Jones: "He takes everything out of the end zone ... (even) with his back foot on the line, because he feels good and he's playing good."
Turns out, Smith's words proved prophetic.
Jones opened the second half with an electrifying 108-yard kick return that, at the time, seemed like it put the nail in the 49ers' coffin. San Francisco bounced back, of course, but still never fully erased its deficit.
You could make a case, too, that Jones' first touchdown was an even better one. With Flacco under pressure in the pocket, Jones slipped past Chris Culliver and found himself open deep. He adjusted to an underthrown ball, hauled it in while tumbling to the ground, then had the presence of mind to get to his feet and race for the end zone.
Fourth Down: Chris Culliver and Donte Whitner.
A week to forget for Culliver ended with a miserable Sunday. The Ravens consistently picked on the young 49ers' defensive back, be it with Jones, Boldin or Torrey Smith.
Culliver never had a chance. He had plenty of chances to redeem himself too, including on a third down in the fourth quarter, right after San Francisco had pulled within two. There, he picked up a pass interference penalty, the icing on a cake of misery.
And Whitner did Culliver and his 49ers' defensive teammates no favors. He found himself out of position all night. On Pitta's touchdown catch, Whitner followed Flacco to the corner of the end zone, despite there being no Baltimore receivers out there -- in the process leaving Pitta open. That deep TD to Jones also might be on Whitner's shoulders -- for some reason, he flew up on a short route on 3rd-and-10, vacating deep.
First Down: Colin Kaepernick (after the lights went out).
Kaepernick was rattled and uncomfortable for the entire first half, from his airmailing of Randy Moss on an interception to a 3rd-and-2 deep in Baltimore territory, where he opted to keep the ball and dive down shy of a first down.
But after Sunday night's mystifying power outage, Kaepernick shot to life. Rediscovering the confidence that made him one of the NFL's most incredible stories this season, Kaepernick nearly brought his team all the way back.
It started innocently enough: On a play from his own 25 in the third quarter, Kaepernick stepped up against pressure, found a huge gap and scrambled for a big gain. From then until those three failed plays near Baltimore's goal line late, Kaepernick was unstoppable.
Fourth Down: Ray Lewis, the player.
First Down: Ray Lewis, the champion.
Look, there's a reason Ray Lewis is retiring. Physically, he just does not have it anymore -- a fact that became painfully obvious as Vernon Davis smoked him repeatedly on pass plays, and the 49ers turned the corner against him on run plays.
And you know what? None of that really matters.
Had the Ravens lost, Lewis' subpar performance would have come under the microscope, especially after a week in which his alleged use of a banned substance was a talking point. The Ravens' win, however, sends one of the league's all-time greatest defenders out as a champion.
Make no mistake about it: Lewis' pending retirement was a huge motivational point for Baltimore all postseason. Maybe this team still makes its incredible run without Lewis' pre-playoff announcement that he was in his "last ride." But it's fair to assume that little tidbit gave the Ravens an extra edge.
As soon as Justin Smith tore his triceps late in the regular season, the 49ers' defensive line and pass rush took a massive step back. Smith never again made it back to 100 percent, and it showed, up to and including Sunday.
Justin Smith made a mere three tackles and found himself on the sideline for some key plays late; while Aldon Smith was a virtual non-factor, recording two tackles and no sacks.
The 49ers still managed to drum up some pressure on Flacco -- Ahmad Brooks and Ray McDonald each had a sack -- but they often had to use blitz packages to do so, putting even more pressure on a struggling secondary. San Francisco needed monster games from its Smith duo, and neither managed to produce one.