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Wednesday, December 31, 2008
Is Ravens' Flacco ready for the big stage?

By James Walker
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's James Walker

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Joe Flacco showed the emotion of a turnip Wednesday.

 
 Larry French/Getty Images
 Rookie Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco has been poised and calm as he enters his first NFL playoff game.

There was no giddiness about leading the Baltimore Ravens to the playoffs as a rookie and no inkling that Flacco is about to play the biggest game of his career.

"Once we get down to Miami and win the game, then I'll be pretty excited," Flacco responded.

Flacco and the Ravens (11-5) will travel to play the Miami Dolphins (11-5) in Sunday's AFC wild-card game. The rookie is arguably the most important key to Baltimore's success this week, yet Flacco doesn't seem fazed by the additional playoff pressure.

"If you watch the kid, he has a calm, humble spirit about himself," Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said. "When he steps on the field, good or bad, Joe is always Joe."

Welcome to the big time, rookie

That will be the message coming from the opposing sideline.

Baltimore's defense led by Lewis and Pro Bowl safety Ed Reed will be ready. But what about Flacco, who is expected to lead the Ravens' offense on the road in a postseason game?

In the playoffs, one rookie mistake can send 53 players packing until next September.

Expect Miami's No. 15-ranked defense be very aggressive against Flacco. Led by linebacker Joey Porter, the Dolphins were eighth in the NFL in sacks this year with 40. Porter was second in the league with 17.5 sacks this season and often tries to get in the head of opposing quarterbacks.

The good news for Flacco is he's already seen the Dolphins' defense in Week 7. He played well, completing 17 of 23 attempts for 232 yards and a touchdown during a 27-13 victory. The performance marked a springboard of sorts for Flacco, who threw for 12 touchdowns and just five interceptions since that game.

Flacco's maturation, in part, has led to Baltimore winning nine of its last 11 games.

"We feel like we've improved," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "Every part of our team has improved. But so are [the Dolphins], and so are all the teams in the playoffs. So you have to keep getting better just to stay the same."

What a year

A year ago at this time, Flacco, who played at Delaware, was a little-known quarterback doing his best to impress NFL scouts.

Although Flacco's name didn't register with most football fans, the Ravens, based nearby, were one of the first NFL teams to do due diligence on Flacco.

Baltimore regional scout Joe Douglas kept close tabs on him and was the first inside the organization to give him a very high grade. From there, Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome and others really started to research and take notice of Flacco and eventually drafted the small-school quarterback with the No. 18 overall pick.

"For those guys to come down to Delaware and find out about me just meant so much to me," Flacco said. "It's a lot of the reason why I'm here. The Ravens give a lot of responsibility to those [scouts] to do what they do. Obviously, I'm pretty grateful for what they did."

Perhaps the key to Flacco's success this year is that nothing has appeared too big for him.

Flacco never carried himself like a small-school quarterback making the jump to the NFL. He was prepared when the Ravens were forced to play him in Week 1 after Troy Smith (illness) and Kyle Boller (shoulder) both went down in the preseason. And statistically, his numbers are better on the road than they are at home.

"Joe is one of those gifted ones," Lewis said. "Joe is going to be a special kid. He has every athletic attribute to play the quarterback position the way he plays it. And you can see that in his demeanor when he's on the football field."

Extra dough

Flacco also is being rewarded for his solid production. He recently earned a hefty $3 million bonus for playing 80 percent of the offensive snaps as a rookie. Starting next season, he will have $750,000 added to the base salary of the four remaining years of his contract.

In theory, Flacco was not expected to reach that large incentive, but few things have been conventional this year for Baltimore. The team is being led to the playoffs by a rookie quarterback and a rookie head coach in Harbaugh, joining the Atlanta Falcons as the other team to accomplish that feat.

Flacco could also earn an additional $200,000 for each postseason victory, not to mention all the extra publicity and accolades that come with being a successful playoff quarterback.

Those are a lot of additional reasons to be excited, but Flacco isn't budging this week.