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Confident Joe Flacco Sets Eyes On Bengals


The Ravens' 2013 season essentially ended on this play:

In Cincinnati, the Ravens trailed the Bengals by 10 points with four minutes, 15 seconds remaining. Baltimore needed a win to get into the playoffs. It was a longshot, but a miracle was still possible.

Wearing a brace tucked under his pants to help support a knee injury, quarterback Joe Flacco took the snap out of the shotgun. Unable to fully step forward with as much gusto, Flacco's pass didn't have the same zip, and was thrown behind receiver Torrey Smith.

Bengals cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick pounced, made the interception and returned it for a touchdown. Game over.

"Kind of summed up the whole year for the Baltimore Ravens offense," CBS analyst Phil Simms said. "Timing not there. Throw was off-target. Just not able to make it happen."

Flacco finished the day 30-of-50 for 192 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions, a 49.8 quarterback rating.

Don't expect those kinds of numbers this time around, however.

Starting against those same Cincinnati Bengals Sunday at M&T Bank Stadium, Flacco is in position for a major rebound season.

While Flacco's demeanor, personality and competitive fire hasn't changed one iota since last season, everything around him has. By proxy, that should make for a new and improved Flacco.

"They got after us a little bit last year, and we didn't play very well in that final game," Flacco said.

"This is the beginning of a new year. We're confident. We're going to go out there and have nerves just like we always do on a Sunday afternoon, and it's going to feel good."

Flacco has done a lot of winning over his six years in the NFL. He's the only quarterback in league history to reach the playoffs in his first five seasons. The Ravens are 62-34 when Flacco has been under center.

But Flacco hasn't been a box score buster. For the fantasy football fanatics out there, he's owned in just 25 percent of ESPN leagues.

Flacco has never thrown for more than 4,000 yards in a single season. He's never thrown for more than 25 touchdowns either. Last season, Flacco tossed 19 touchdowns to 22 interceptions.

That could change this season.

"I think he's going to have a really big year," fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. "From Day 1 in [organized team activities], I feel like he already knew the entire offense before we even showed up, which is amazing. You see him in practice every day making plays. He just seems really comfortable. So I'm excited to see what Joe's going to do."

Part of the problem is that Flacco often hasn't had the greatest arsenal of weapons around him. His best group came in 2012, during the Super Bowl year, when he had wide receivers Anquan Boldin, Smith and Jacoby Jones, and tight end Dennis Pitta.

This year, substitute in Steve Smith Sr. for Boldin, add big-bodied Marlon Brown, who tied a Ravens rookie franchise record with seven receiving touchdowns last year, and veteran tight end Owen Daniels. Also, give Flacco an upgraded offensive line.

That's a lot better than last year, when Torrey Smith and Brown were the top targets. Pitta was out for 12 games and replaced by Dallas Clark, who retired after the season. Instead of Steve Smith in the slot, there was oft-injured Brandon Stokley, who also hung up his cleats at season's end. Jones also missed the first four games after being injured in the season-opener.

It wasn't just a problem of not having enough targets to throw to. The run game was the worst in the league, averaging 3.1 yards per carry, and Flacco was sacked the second-most times in the NFL (48).

Simms, the CBS analyst watching the Ravens' final game, hit it on the head again. The Ravens closed out the game meaninglessly driving down the field. They got to the Bengals' 7-yard line and threw a fourth-down pass short of the end zone. There was no point.

"The Ravens fixed their defense this past offseason – a lot of changes," Simms said. "This coming season, this offense, they're going to have to revamp it."

That's what Baltimore did, and Flacco, in many ways, is the beneficiary.

It's not only the players. Flacco also has a new system for the first time in his career with Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak. It suits Flacco well, and the quarterback has bought in.

"I think we'll see a great side of Joe because of the pieces we have around him now," tight end Dennis Pitta said. "Last year, for whatever reason, it didn't quite fit and it didn't quite work all across the board. We didn't run the ball like we needed to for him to be able to have success.

"He's comfortable in this system now, and confident in what he's doing. With the pieces around him, I think we're all excited to see what we can do on the field."

The Bengals know the Flacco they saw walking off the field at Paul Brown Stadium on Dec. 29 isn't the same Flacco they'll see Sunday afternoon at M&T Bank Stadium.

"I expect to see the very, very best," Bengals Head Coach Marvin Lewis said. "It's the opening week of the season. I think everybody is high flying. Joe's an excellent player and they have great offensive personnel. We're going to have our hands full."

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