If you watched the first weekend of the NFL playoffs, you saw some seriously good quarterbacking.
Andrew Luck was fabulous in the Indianapolis Colts' epic comeback win. Colin Kaepernick piled up 325 rushing and passing yards for the San Francisco 49ers and led a game-winning drive. The New Orleans Saints' Drew Brees threw a couple of interceptions but passed for 250 yards and also led a game-winning drive. The San Diego Chargers' Philip Rivers posted a 118.0 quarterback rating.
Accurate passing, effective running, poise under pressure … it was all there. And those were just the winners. Three of the weekend's four losing quarterbacks also were outstanding. The Kansas City Chiefs' Alex Smith, Philadelphia Eagles' Nick Foles and Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers deserved better: They combined to throw seven touchdowns and no interceptions, yet went 0-3.
Take away Andy Dalton, who was horrendous for the Cincinnati Bengals, and superior quarterbacking was a constant theme throughout the weekend. And that's bound to continue with Peyton Manning and Tom Brady among those joining the tournament when it resumes in four days.
The lesson is obvious. You need a quarterback on his "A" game just to make the playoffs, and then you need that "A" game to continue if you want to have a chance to get anywhere. Just ask the Bengals.
The Ravens already know that, of course. Their quarterback, Joe Flacco, helped them earn a playoff spot a year ago, then went on an historic roll, throwing 11 touchdown passes without an interception as the Ravens reeled off four playoff wins to capture the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Flacco's performance set a new standard for postseason excellence. The quarterbacks still alive this year are all hoping to reprise his white-hot hand of a year ago.
Unfortunately for Flacco and the Ravens, he didn't play as well in 2013. Although he set a career high for passing yards and led several game-winning drives, he also threw as many interceptions (22) as in his previous two seasons combined, easily setting his career high. He threw into coverage, lost his deep-ball touch and simply never rediscovered his "A" game from the 2012 playoffs.
Watching last weekend's games and seeing how high the bar is set at his position in the postseason, it's easy to point to Flacco's falloff as one of the main reasons why the Ravens' missed the playoffs in 2013. The axiom about it being a quarterback-driven league has never been truer, and Flacco's 73.1 quarterback rating for 2013 ranked him 32nd out of the 37 starters who generated meaningful ratings. That's just not good enough. (One radio caller griped that the Ravens would have made the playoffs this year with Luck under center instead of Flacco. Maybe so. But would they have won the Super Bowl with Luck a year ago? I don't think so. So … take your pick.)
Some of Flacco's 2013 falloff can be rationalized. The Ravens' running game practically vanished, a huge problem. The line struggled to protect Flacco, who was sacked 48 times, another by-far career high. The front office traded Anquan Boldin, his favorite wideout from the 2012 playoffs, and didn't provide a replacement. His favorite target, tight end Dennis Pitta, was sidelined for most of the season with a hip injury.
Throw in the sprained knee ligament Flacco suffered late in the season and pretty much everything went wrong.
For this, Flacco is taking a lot of hits in the public realm, some fairer than others. There's no doubt he was a key factor in the disappointing season, but comparisons to Dalton (now 0-3 as a playoff starter) are inaccurate unless you just want to pretend Flacco's Super Bowl run never happened.
Still, it's clear from watching the playoffs that Flacco needs to raise his game quite a bit. The Ravens should devote this offseason to trying to make that happen. They know he can take them all the way in the right circumstances. They need to work on giving him better targets, better protection, a better running game, a fresher scheme.
Their guiding principle for every move should be a question: Does this make Flacco better?
Flacco needs to do his part, too, get healthy and be in the right place mentally and physically for a comeback season. I can't emphasize enough how important it is. The Ravens aren't going to win another Super Bowl because their running game picks up or their defense is stout. They're going to win it if their quarterback is on his "A" game, as he was a year ago.