The AFC North is currently jammed tight, with just a half-game separating the top from the bottom, and there's no doubt the division's four quarterbacks will have a major say in what happens down the stretch. Shoot, they might decide the thing. Pro football is complex, but the NFL is a quarterback-centric league.
I'm guessing many analysts expect the Pittsburgh Steelers to prevail simply because they have Ben Roethlisberger under center – in a record-setting mode, no less. By the same token, the Cincinnati Bengals probably aren't going to get much love because they're relying on the underwhelming Andy Dalton, whose epic fail against the Cleveland Browns last week had statisticians going back decades to find similar levels of ineptitude.
As for those surprising Browns, a lot of people, me included, think they're for real mostly because their quarterback, Brian Hoyer, is making a lot more plays than mistakes, having thrown just four picks all year.
That leaves the Ravens and Joe Flacco, the hardest of the division's quarterback quartet to paint with a broad brush stroke.
He easily has the best credentials besides Roethlisberger, with a Super Bowl win to his credit as well as multiple playoff successes, an enviable career won-loss record, etc. And he is having a pretty solid 2014 statistically, ranked 15th in the league in passing yards per game and 16th in quarterback rating, with more than twice as many touchdowns (17) as interceptions (8). His 62.4 completion percentage surpasses his 60.5 career figure.
While not eye-popping numbers, they're fine for a quarterback operating an offense that depends on a solid running game.
Recently, though, Flacco has underperformed at times. He threw a pair of interceptions in a home win over Atlanta, and also threw two picks in the Ravens' key loss in Cincinnati. Since his record-setting torching of Tampa Bay on Oct. 12, he has generated a ho-hum average quarterback rating of 79.0.
In the Ravens' lackluster win over Tennessee Sunday, Flacco wasn't especially sharp. At times, he seemed unsettled by the Titans' aggressive defense and threw off-balance. Many of his long balls floated. On CBS, broadcaster Rich Gannon pointed out several open receivers he didn't target.
If Flacco was going to experience tough times in 2014, they seemed likely to occur early, as he and his unit adjusted to running Offensive Coordinator Gary Kubiak's new system. Instead, the opposite has happened: Flacco got off to a fast start and has leveled off.
As always, other factors play a role in his performance. The offensive line had a tough time dealing with heavy pressure in Pittsburgh on Nov. 2, leaving him little time to throw; he took a beating in that game. Not surprisingly, Tennessee took the same approach a week later, and as noted, had some success. The line dealt with several injuries to starters last month. Kubiak got away from the running game in a couple of games, throwing the balance off.
But in the end, Flacco, a veteran in his prime years, is responsible for his own performance. And the Ravens are going to need him to bring his "A" game fairly consistently down the stretch if they hope to prevail in a division race so tight.
The four teams aren't separated by much, and the Ravens are dealing with a patchwork pass defense that is the definition of a work in progress. If that means their opponents are going to put up points, the Ravens need to put up more. That doesn't happen without a quarterback who is consistently productive.
There's little doubt Flacco has a higher ceiling this year in Kubiak's scheme, which worked for years in Houston and Denver and has significantly improved the Ravens offense. Before the 2014 season, I predicted Flacco would have his best year ever; I felt that strongly about Kubiak's influence. And indeed, at his current pace, Flacco would surpass 4,000 passing yards in a season for the first time while throwing 27 touchdowns and 13 picks – good stuff.
But numbers aside, the Ravens are going to need more from their quarterback than he has delivered lately if they're going to win their division.