As the contenders and pretenders sort themselves out in the AFC playoff race, a crucial determining factor has reared its head. Did you notice?
The New England Patriots, Denver Broncos, Indianapolis Colts, Cincinnati Bengals, Pittsburgh Steelers and Ravens all have won enough that they would comprise the field if the playoffs began today. What do those teams have in common? They all have well-established franchise quarterbacks who have either signed six-figure contracts or will soon. Four of those six quarterbacks have won a Super Bowl.
Meanwhile, the Kansas City Chiefs, San Diego Chargers, Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns, Miami Dolphins and Houston Texans all have lost enough to lag behind; they would be on the sidelines if the playoffs began today. What do they have in common? None of their quarterbacks has won a Super Bowl, and other than the Chargers, who have Philip Rivers, they don't have a signal-caller worth six figures.
One way or another, the teams on the outside are just not quite good enough under center – either injury-plagued, unproven or unsettled. Other than Rivers and maybe Kansas City's Alex Smith, their quarterbacks don't compare with those of the teams holding spots in the playoff field as of now.
Is that a coincidence? I don't think so.
Look, I know success in pro football, a complex game, is the fruit of a thousand labors, not just the result of having a quality quarterback. But boy, it sure helps to have one. And nothing wrecks your chances faster than not having one, as the Ravens' final two regular-season opponents know. Both are on that list of contenders who have lagged behind.
This Sunday, Baltimore plays the Texans, who lost a game as well as their quarterback, Ryan Fitzpatrick, to a leg fracture last Sunday. The Texans had to pluck Case Keenum off the Rams' practice squad, possibly to start Sunday. Then, in the season finale, the Ravens will host the Browns, whose feel-good season is unraveling with Brian Hoyer benched and Johnny Manziel obviously not ready.
Meanwhile, the Ravens are rolling along, as steady as an ocean liner under center with Joe Flacco, who has never missed a game and is playing some of his best football as the Ravens try to nail down a sixth trip to the playoffs in his seven years.
Running back Justin Forsett and linebacker Elvis Dumervil warrant consideration as the Ravens' MVP this year, but in identifying their MIP (most indispensable player), it's Flacco by a landslide. As much as they're relying on their pass rush, led by Dumervil, and their running game, led by Forsett, to take them to the postseason, if they didn't have Flacco as a centerpiece, well, let's just say they wouldn't like where they are and neither would you.
They were ripe to lose to Jacksonville in an upset Sunday, their running game blunted, their secondary strafed by injuries, but Flacco pulled them through, generating enough offense with an efficient, error-free performance. He made a batch of plays that moved the chains and generated points, enabling the Ravens to win and keep pace in the playoff race.
Since the team's mid-November bye, when Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak began emphasizing what he believes his unit's personnel does best, Flacco has thrown six touchdowns to one interception while completing more than 70 percent of his attempts. Eschewing long balls for more possession throws, he has generated a 109.9 passer rating, which is almost 20 points higher than his rating before the bye.
For the season, Flacco has thrown 23 touchdowns to nine interceptions, his best ratio since 2010. He needs to average 261 passing yards in the last two games to reach 4,000 in a season for the first time.
As always, his numbers don't match those of some other quarterbacks whose teams also currently hold AFC playoff spots, but also as always, his value extends well beyond what can be quantified. You can't measure doggedness or composure, and you certainly can't measure the value of being there week after week, year* *after year, winning a lot more than he loses.
The next time you hear someone suggest Flacco doesn't deserve the $120.6 million contract the Ravens gave him after he led them to a Super Bowl triumph, just point to the standings and the company the Ravens are keeping in the AFC playoff race. Honestly, enough said.
Get a unique look at the Ravens franchise quarterback in behind-the-scene photos of his football career.