If there was ever a time for Joe Flacco to step up, it would be now, as the Ravens travel to New England to take on the Patriots this weekend in a wild-card matchup with Tom Brady.
Two staid performances from Flacco to close the season have many Ravens fans concerned. Meanwhile, with three Super Bowls to his credit, Brady has already proven he is among the NFL's elite signal-callers.
A strong outing by Flacco could carve out a spot alongside AFC playoff contenders Brady, Peyton Manning and Philip Rivers.
To Flacco's benefit, he does have the pedigree of two postseason games and an appearance in the AFC Championship under his belt. Flacco believes that will help him on Sunday and, maybe, throughout the playoffs.
"The more you experience it, the better you can prepare yourself for it, but the most important thing is that we feel like we have a good team," Flacco said. "We think it's going to be tough to beat us, and we're looking forward to going into [the playoffs] taking it one game at a time."
But, it has been a rocky year for the second-year signal-caller, at least in the second-half of the season.
Despite throwing for a career-high 3,613 yards (second in team annals), 21 touchdowns and 12 interceptions, completing a franchise-record 63.1 percent of his passes, Flacco has been up and down all year.
He does boast five games where he posted a passer rating of at least 100.8, there were also six games where he fell at or below 78.7.
Flacco is also coming off a day where he went 11-of-19 for a measly 102 yards and a 72.7 rating in a 21-13 win over the Oakland Raiders. Baltimore may have rushed for 240 total yards and three touchdowns, but Flacco must improve heading into the tournament.
Before that, it was a 13-of-25, 166-yard performance against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Still, the Ravens are not worried about the former first-round draft pick.
"I think a lot of it has to do with what they were doing defensively, and obviously, the pressure got us a couple of times," head coach John Harbaugh said of the Raiders contest. "We missed a couple of things that we probably could have hit that would have made a huge difference. If we'd have found a couple of open guys behind some of those blitzes – like we're capable of doing – that would have made a big difference.
"I think the running game was working pretty well. They do a great job in the back end, and there were times when they covered us. So, it wasn't as good of a passing performance as we'd like to see, but like we always say, every game stands on its own. Every week is a different drama, and I thought our offense did what they had to do to win that game."
One thing that has been the cause of much dismay among Ravens is Flacco's recent tendency to take hits.
He has dealt with foot, ankle and knee injuries this season, which eight sacks over the past two weeks couldn't have helped.
According to Harbaugh, there are many aspects that factor into decreasing Flacco's hits. Flacco must do a better job of getting rid of the ball under pressure, he has to recognize blitzes better, Baltimore's receivers need to get open more and the offensive line can improve its protection.
All in all, a busy equation.
"There are times we'd like the ball out quicker, and I'm sure there are times that Joe didn't see opportunities to make throws or decided, 'You know what? In this game right here I'm not going to take a chance on this throw. I'm going to make sure that it's [right],'" said Harbaugh. "Maybe it's a sack, even, but it's not a turnover. He might have played a little conservative on some of those throws. Other times, guys were covered. Joe did a good job in the sense of understanding the situation we were in a football game and making sure that we protected the football."
Flacco has tossed only one interception over the last four weeks, which shows maturity.
And, he has seen success against the Patriots earlier this season. The Ravens went to Foxborough, Mass., on Oct. 4 and were beaten 27-21, but Flacco completed 27 of 47 attempts for 264 yards, two touchdowns and one pick.
For Flacco to prove himself, he should better that the second time around.
"We were up there earlier this year, and we feel like we should have gotten one," he stated. "This is our chance to go up there and try to get it back. To prove to everybody and to prove to ourselves that we can beat these guys. New England is where it starts."