Like it or not, the Ravens will start Joe Flacco at quarterback this weekend against the Cincinnati Bengals.
And while the rookie has played up to first-string standards in two preseason starts, Flacco's promotion is just as much of a necessity considering Kyle Boller's shoulder injury and Troy Smith's tonsils infection.
"Joe is going to be the starter on Sunday," said head coach John Harbaugh six days before Baltimore's opener at M&T Bank Stadium. "He's taken the reps as a starter. It wouldn't be realistic to have one of those two guys [Boller or Smith] as a starter for sure.
"If they can back up, I think that would be an upset."
Harbaugh's comments mark somewhat of an end to an odd saga that has played on throughout the preseason.
Flacco began training camp in the midst of a three-quarterback battle with Boller and Smith. Then after two shaky performances as a third-stringer, the 18th-overall pick took a backseat to the two veterans, as Harbaugh basically took Flacco's name out of the running.
But everything changed when the Ravens went to St. Louis to play the Rams Aug. 22.
Boller was diagnosed with a shoulder injury, and Smith came down with a viral illness that would eventually land him in the hospital. The shakeup meant that Flacco would helm the offense against the Rams, and then later against the Atlanta Falcons.
The Ravens even had to sign free agent Casey Bramlet, who was recently relegated to the practice squad, to be a backup.
Flacco ended up leading all Baltimore passers with a 68.3 quarterback rating, completing 52.2 percent of his 67 throws.
Perhaps more importantly, Flacco tossed the Ravens' lone touchdown pass and did not surrender a single interception.
"He probably saw it coming. It's not something that was too hard to figure out," Harbaugh said of the mild-mannered quarterback. "He was in here watching tape all weekend, just hanging around and looking for someone to talk to, basically. He's excited in his own 'Joe' way. He's excited."
Flacco's steady improvement is undeniable over the preseason. In his first showing, he went 0-fot-3 and coughed up a fumble in New England. Against the Rams, Flacco was 18-of-27 for 152 yards and a score.
Last week, the rookie was 8-for-13 for 72 yards, leading the Ravens to a 3-0 lead by the time he exited in the second quarter.
"The thing that's kind of exciting about it is just that fact," Harbaugh said. "You couldn't envision this scenario; it wasn't what we planned. We didn't plan on him taking this many reps, or really any one quarterback taking this many reps throughout the preseason, probably.
"But, he's certainly benefited from it. And you can see the improvement from the first game to the fourth game."
Despite his typical stone-faced demeanor, Flacco, who has previously expressed his desire to start Week 1, was noticeably excited to step into his role as leader of the offense.
"It's faster than I expected, but this is what I wanted all along," said the former Delaware signal-caller. "Things happen funny. I've gotten my opportunity. It's up to me to go out there and play, and it's up to our offense. It's all about our offense now. We're in the regular season, and all these games count.
"We want to go out there and prove we're a good offense. That's what we're going to do this week, starting with Cincinnati."
A solid performance could make the case for handing the reins over to Flacco permanently, but the Ravens are going to continue to evaluate the quarterback position on a weekly basis.
But to create more of a competition, Boller, who has 42 career starts to his credit, must nurse his sore throwing shoulder.
Smith, who just returned from a weekend stay in the hospital to combat his illness, is nowhere near playing shape, having lost weight after being unable to consume food for days.
"[Smith] won't be practicing for a while," Harbaugh said. "He's on antibiotics and different things. He's going to be out until he gets his strength back and that infection clears up."
The Ravens are also looking to bring in another arm while Boller and Smith work though their ailments.
Former Falcon Joey Harrington, Chris Simms, a former starter with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and veteran backup Todd Bouman, recently of the Jacksonville Jaguars, all worked out for Baltimore team officials.
ESPN.com's Chris Mortenson is reporting that the Ravens have signed Harrington, who has seven years of NFL experience.
"Everybody gets an opportunity, and you take it and you run with it," Harbaugh said. "You can definitely envision a scenario where it could be Joe's job throughout the year. You can envision a scenario where it's Kyle's job again. You can envision that it's Troy's job, or even the new quarterback, whoever he is."
Whatever the circumstance, Harbaugh has been faced with a tough quarterback challenge as a first-year head coach, one that he can only counter by solely focusing on the upcoming opponent.
"There are a lot of things that can happen in football, so we're really not predicting anything," he said. "No reason to go there. We know Sunday it's going to be Joe, and let's go try and win a football game."
Smith Feeling Better
A noticeably-thinner Smith finally returned to the locker room after dealing with the first stages of his illness last week.
The 2007 fifth-round draft pick kept a positive outlook at a setback that could have derailed his bid to become the top signal-caller in Baltimore.
"You have to think as if the glass is always half full," Smith said. "If I was in a situation where I would just want to point the finger, who would I point it at? It would have to come back towards me. God works in mysterious ways, and He's still incredible.
"There's nothing that He'll put in front of me that I can't handle."
Smith noted that doctors originally thought he was suffering a bout of the flu.
"Physically, I'm all right," he affirmed, noting that he still must take antibiotics. "There are still a couple spells and a couple bouts where I've got to get through it with my breathing and things like that. But I'm getting through it."
The Ravens completed their practice squad with the addition of tight end Nate Lawrie of the Bengals, Marcus Mason, who spent training camp with the Washington Redskins, former New York Jets defensive end Bryan Mattison, the son of linebackers coach Greg Mattison, and Matt Willis, who spent last year between the Ravens' practice squad and active roster.
Baltimore also released cornerback and 2006 third-round draft pick David Pittman.