NEW ORLEANS — If you go back far enough in time, you’ll find a point when the greatest in NFL history weren’t nearly as accomplished or decorated in their respective careers.
Joe Montana wasn’t always a four-time Super Bowl winner for the San Francisco 49ers. John Elway was long considered the quarterback who couldn’t win the big one before two Super Bowl rings to end his long career in Denver.
In Baltimore, Ray Lewis and the Ravens defense weren’t always associated with the league’s all-time greatest. The soon-to-be-retired linebacker may have been the team’s best defensive player immediately as a rookie in 1996, but the rest of the world didn’t understand his greatness until a victory in Super Bowl XXXV in which he was voted the game’s most valuable player.
That moment in time propelled Lewis into the conversation as one of the greatest defenders in league history and the Baltimore defense into more than a decade of dominance and respect in NFL circles. It’s the shadow quarterback Joe Flacco will try to escape once and for all as the Ravens compete against the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII on Sunday evening.
Even if the fifth-year quarterback doesn’t look at it in the same way, Sunday’s game will be his defining moment.
“This team has had such a great defense for many years, such big faces on that side of the ball,” Flacco said. “That’s what we’re known for. Us guys on the other side, we don’t have any problem with that. We know that in order to win football games we have to go out there and do our job. We’re kind of humble guys on our side of the ball and don’t really care what people say about how we won it.”
Of course, a single championship won’t bring Flacco into the discussion of the all-time greats, but it would forever transform how outsiders perceive both him and the Ravens. With Lewis retiring and safety Ed Reed’s return in doubt, this era of great Baltimore defense is coming to an end. The numbers this season reflected that despite a stalwart performance from Lewis and the defense in three postseason games.
The opinions about Flacco have already been altered as he’s thrown eight touchdown passes and no interceptions in playoff wins over Indianapolis, Denver, and New England. Teammates believes he has nothing left to prove, but the critics and doubters will remain if the Ravens are unable to finish the job against San Francisco.
No one said it was easy — or even fair — to take that final step, but a win against the 49ers is what’s really needed to close the book on one era and open the door to another, presumably with Flacco leading the way. A new-found respect has been penciled in by even his biggest critics this postseason, but his performance on Sunday will be what’s written in permanent ink.
He may not be able to do it alone, but this postseason has fallen heaviest on the broad shoulders of the Baltimore signal-caller.
“This postseason has done that,” tight end Dennis Pitta said. “I don’t know if it will be on one game or not, because we’re going against a really good defense. It’ll be a challenge for us. I think our defense needs to play well, [but] I certainly think the offense has come a long way. That stigma — that perception — that the Baltimore Ravens are only defense has certainly changed through the course of this season and through this postseason.”
Truthfully, there isn’t much more you can ask of Flacco. A loss to the 49ers wouldn’t erase what he’s already done in his first five seasons in the league. Many will debate where he ranks in the quarterback hierarchy, but there’s no disputing his impeccable ability to remain calm in pressure-filled situations.
But a loss would still be a disappointment, leaving him outside a premium group of quarterbacks.
He’s knocking on the door of greatness, but one final push is needed, just as it was when Lewis came through the tunnel and danced in Tampa with the entire world watching on Jan. 28, 2001. In the meantime, those closest to him will continue to sing his praises until the rest of the world finally catches up — at least in their opinions.
“Joe Flacco’s done a hell of a job,” running back Ray Rice said. “He deserves all the credit. Every quarterback out there gets respect, but you’ve got to mention Joe up there with them now because of what he’s done. He just outplayed two Hall of Famers. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning will be Hall of Famers. Joe Flacco outplayed them both, and that doesn’t happen often.”