Flacco proving his mettle in second season

FOXBORO, Mass. -- Everyone knows about Tom Brady, the international celebrity and New England Patriots star quarterback. He's the guy with the supermodel wife who's constantly hounded by paparazzi. He's the man with the rocket arm, glittery statistics, two Super Bowl MVP trophies and one league MVP honor under his belt.

So, Brady's star presence today at Gillette Stadium will be unmistakable as the Patriots (2-1) take on the undefeated Baltimore Ravens (3-0) in a pivotal clash regarded as an early-season battleground with AFC bragging rights at stake.

Yet, Brady won't be the only top-notch quarterback on the field today who's capable of launching crisp spirals for touchdown after touchdown while leading his team to a prolific performance.

Three games into his second NFL season in Baltimore, soft-spoken, unassuming Joe Flacco from little Audubon, N.J. is emerging as one of the best young quarterbacks in the game. He has made a quantum leap in his development.

Flacco has completed 65.4 percent of his throws for 839 yards, six touchdowns and two interceptions for a 101.4 quarterback rating. He's on pace to pass for 4,474 yards, 32 touchdowns and 10 interceptions this season.

And the Ravens' second-ranked offense has become a surprising juggernaut with averages of 34.3 points and 430.3 yards per contest.

"Any time you're on the offensive side of the ball you want to put up points and kind of hold up your end of the bargain and prove your worth on the team, and I think that's what we're doing on offense," Flacco said. "We want to prove that we belong on this team and we can help our team win. That's our goal, to go out there and put points on the board each week and to win football games.

"I think the way we're playing together offensively and defensively, it's tough to beat us. And as long as we keep this up, and understand what kind of hard work it takes to do that, then I think we'll be all right."

With Flacco at the controls, the Ravens have become much more than adequate offensively since drafting him in the first round last year out of the University of Delaware.

He helped lead the Ravens to the AFC championship game last season as the first rookie quarterback in NFL history to win two playoff games, throwing a touchdown in 12 of his past 14 games.

During those dozen wins, Flacco has thrown 18 touchdown passes and just three interceptions for a 102.8 quarterback rating. And the Ravens are 9-1 when Flacco doesn't throw an interception. "Flacco has won a lot of games," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "He hasn't been playing long, and he's already won a lot games and hasn't lost hardly any. I think that says a lot about managing the team, doing what you need to do to win, getting your team into the end zone, getting your team to perform better than the other team you're playing against."

Flacco has proven to be unflappable on the road, too. Over the past seven road games in the regular season going back to Oct. 19 of last year, Flacco has generated a league-best 101.1 quarterback rating in those contests.

Away from the friendly confines of M&T Bank Stadium, he has completed 64.9 percent of his throws for 1,448 yards, 11 touchdowns and just three interceptions.

However, comparing Flacco to Brady in terms of their careers isn't a reasonable conversation to have at this point.

Pointing out similar qualities in terms of poise, work ethic, character and arm strength does have some validity.

"That would be unfair to try to compare the two," wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "Obviously, Tom's one of the best in the game and Joe's a young, up-and-coming quarterback. Joe's very good in his own right, but it's unfair to compare the two.

"Tom has three Super Bowls, and hopefully we can help Joe to catch up with him pretty soon. From last year to this year, I think his confidence level has totally risen, and that's the way it's supposed to be. That true greatness will start coming out, and it's coming out with Joe." Added Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis: "Joe is a totally different quarterback than Tom. They're two totally different quarterbacks. Joe is kind of figuring his thing out on the go. Tom is settled and things like that."

Even though Flacco is tied with Jay Cutler for the third-most touchdown passes, ranks seventh in the NFL in passing yards and owns the top winning percentage of 14-3, including the postseason, going back to Oct. 19 over Peyton Manning (12-3), Ben Roethlisberger (12-5) and Eli Manning (11-4), the Ravens are careful to emphasize that the towering gunslinger isn't done developing. They still expect some growing pains to manifest themselves here and there.

Joe Cool isn't Joe Perfect, at least not yet. "He's going to have some bumps in the road," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "He's going to see some things he hasn't seen and he's not perfect. He's made mistakes already.

"He's missed some throws and thrown some he shouldn't have thrown. Hopefully, he'll keep getting better and he learns from every experience."

In terms of attitude, the Ravens have absolutely no complaints.

Flacco haunts the film room. He continually arrives early and stays late, and his ego is practically nonexistent for such a gifted passer. "We've seen the kind of progress out of Joe that we were looking for and the coaches were very confident this offseason in all of the preparation he had done with the tape-watching and study," Ravens team owner Steve Bisciotti told an Ocean City newspaper this week. "He really seems to be a student of the game. I trust my coaches. They marvel at Joe's football knowledge and what he understands.

"As a kid coming out of Delaware, he's learning how to read defenses pretty darn well and that's the key. That's what retards some other people's development, that lack of ability to really understand the game. The nuances of these defenses are so sophisticated, you really have to study."

In terms of personality, Flacco has maintained his stoic approach.

He's always humble during interviews. Only rarely does he reveal a dry sense of humor that cracks up his teammates in the locker room. "He gets to be himself when he's around us," Mason said. "Joe's not boring at all, but when he comes out here [for interviews] he's mild-mannered, he talks very, very slow, and that's his demeanor on the field.

"That's him, and we love it. When he's in the locker room with us, he's having fun. He's one of the guys. We love the approach that Joe has taken the last two years. I think he'll continue to take that approach as long as he's playing this game."

Specifically, Flacco has improved at almost every facet of his game.

He's more willing to throw over the middle, and he's more accurate when he does so after struggling in that area a year ago when he completed less than half of his passes in that direction.

He's displaying more touch on short and intermediate throws.

And he's much more confident and has been granted the freedom by offensive coordinator Cam Cameron to throw deep while gaining significant knowledge of how to read defenses.

"Any time you're in your second year in the offense, you're going to get better from the first year," Flacco said. "I think that's what you are seeing right now. I guess Cam has opened it up a little bit, if you want to say that. We played last year the way that we were supposed to play and the way that gave us the best shot of winning.

"I think this year we're doing the same thing. If things have changed at all it's just because our offense as a whole has grown and we've become more comfortable with each other and more comfortable with the plays we're running."

The Ravens lead the AFC with 103 points, ranking second in the league behind the New Orleans Saints'120 points.

In three games, Baltimore has racked up 501 yards and 479 yards for the most total net yards in franchise history. The Ravens have generated 82 first downs and converted 46.2 percent of their third downs.

"I think we can keep that up against anybody that we're going to play and that's our goal, to get in the red zone and score touchdowns," Flacco said. "Any time you're on offense and you're the quarterback of that offense, you believe you can do something like that."

So, Brady won't be the only dangerous quarterback out there today.

If anything, this shapes up as a duel between two of the better quarterbacks.

What Flacco lacks in terms of pedigree, he's rapidly gaining ground in terms of respect. "He's so comfortable understanding what Cam and John want that he's really mastered it himself," Lewis said. "Now in his second year, Joe is out there pretty much controlling the offense himself basically."

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