A little over one year ago, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco was playing in the most important game of his life.
That day, on Dec. 14, 2007, Flacco led the Delaware Blue Hens into battle for the Football Championship Subdivision title against Appalachian State.
Kicking off in Chattanooga, Tenn., the contest played out in front of a raucous crowd of 23,010.
This weekend, as the Ravens prepare to take on the Pittsburgh Steelers at the 65,050-seat Heinz Field, Flacco has another big stage in front of him.
While an FCS trophy tilt may not be as big of a stage as Baltimore's AFC Championship matchup, Flacco draws similarities between the two.
"There were pretty big stakes when I was playing the semi-finals and when I played in the finals of the I-AA playoff last year," said Flacco, who turned 24 Friday. "At that time there were pretty big stakes because we wanted to win the I-AA National Championship.
"That was the biggest game that any of us had played in to that point. And now I'm getting ready to play in my biggest game that I've played at this point."
Flacco's journey from Point A to Point B has been long, but pleasantly surprising to Ravens fans.
Many asked, "Joe who?" when general manager Ozzie Newsometraded up in the draft to take Flacco 18th overall. Intense private workouts with the prospect who set 20 career records at Delaware yielded enough promise to justify the selection.
But a shoulder injury knocked Boller out of the starting race, and Smith developed a tonsil infection that spread to his lungs, causing a blood clot that put him the hospital two weeks before the season opener.
Almost by default, Flacco ascended to the first string.
Even though that may not be the ideal situation for a rookie, especially one with a small-school pedigree, Flacco certainly stepped up to the challenge.
Flacco has led the Ravens to a 13-5 record and revived an offense that lay dormant one season ago. Personally, he has steadily improved with each game and recently became the only rookie quarterback in NFL history to win two playoff contests.
Over the last 13 weeks, Baltimore is 11-2, as Flacco completed 187 of 329 throws (57 percent) for 2,423 yards, 14 touchdowns and only five interceptions. And, he's done it all exuding his trademark calm and confident persona.
For those reasons - both on and off the field - Flacco has earned the respect and admiration of his teammates, shown by the Gatorade shower Flacco received after Friday's practice in honor of his birthday.
"As far as Joe is concerned, the things that he's been able to do this year and the things that he's been able to handle, it's pretty incredible," said tight end Todd Heap. "[As] a young guy coming in, first year, making the plays that he's made, handling the huddle the way he does [is incredible]. He comes in and he's always got that calm demeanor about himself. He's never rattled.
"It's just fun to be a part of a huddle where everybody is on the same page. Everybody has confidence that we're going to make the play work. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't. But when it comes down to it when you need a play to be made, we have confidence in him."
Armed with coordinator Cam Cameron'soffensive system and the tutelage of quarterbacks coach Hue Jackson, Flacco hasn't been afraid to show off his strong arm. The Audubon, N.J., native owns 19 passes of 30 or more yards and has taken many more shots downfield that did not connect.
Perhaps that is why he bristles at the suggestion that he is simply a "game manager" that is held up by the Ravens' fourth-ranked rushing attack and stingy defense.
"I'm going to go out there and I'm going to try to make as [many] plays as I can," Flacco said. "If it's not there, I'm not going to be dumb enough to try to take the play anyway. I'm going to do what I can to make sure it's a safe play. But believe me, I'm not going to go out there and not try to make a play.
"I'm looking to hit the play over the top, and if it's not there, I'm going to shut it down."
Flacco's next test comes against the top passing defense in the league. The Steelers featured a ferocious pass rush and Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu, whose seven interceptions were the NFL's second-most.
In his previous two meetings with the Steelers this year, Flacco was sacked seven times and posted 307 yards on a 27-of-59, one-touchdown and two-interception showing.
Still, Flacco is not backing down from Round III with his AFC North rivals.
"This will be a lot of fun to go out there and play them for the third time this season," he said. "How much more fun does it get? You're in the AFC Championship. Yeah, they're a good defense, but we've faced a lot of good defenses all year, and it's just another challenge for us."
Flacco was also tested two Decembers ago, when he torched the Mountaineers for 334 yards and one touchdown on 23-of-48 passing. The Blue Hens lost that championship game, however, as Appalachian State took their third consecutive FCS title.
It has been a long time since Flacco's last "biggest game," and the Ravens are hoping the outcome is different for him this weekend.
"It's been a lot of fun this season being able to play as many games as we have. Like I said, we still have two more left, in our minds, and we're not going to be satisfied unless we get there."