OWINGS MILLS, Md. - For four games last winter, we saw Joe Flacco put on the kind of transcendent performance that only the great ones are capable of producing, a sequence of games so flawless it can go down as one of the most memorable you will ever see.
There was a wondrous game-saving touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones near the end of regulation in that playoff upset in the bone-chilling cold of Denver, with Peyton Manning watching helplessly in yet another moment of postseason frustration. And a near perfect effort a week later in New England, thus preventing Tom Brady from a chance at putting another Super Bowl ring on another finger. And, finally, an MVP performance in the biggest game of all, as Flacco added three more touchdowns in a thrilling victory over the 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII.
So how does the Ravens' 28-year-old quarterback even think about topping all that?
Well, he knows he may never put together another month-long series quite like that one, which might go down as a once-in-a-lifetime sequence. But what he can do is attempt to transfer that kind of playoff brilliance on to a regular-season resume that still has some flaws he's intent on correcting.
Flacco's postseason numbers last year were absolutely stratospheric: 11 touchdowns, no interceptions, a combined rating of 118.05 that included a Super Bowl rating of 124.2. But similar to the Giants' Eli Manning, who had two remarkably efficient Super Bowl runs and two Super Bowl MVP trophies, Flacco's regular-season numbers are far less gaudy.
Flacco's regular season rating last year was 87.7, only 1.3 points higher than his career rating.
Manning's numbers are remarkably similar; with a career rating of 82.2, he was 13 points higher in the 2007 playoffs, and 21 points better in his 2011 Super Bowl MVP run.
"The biggest thing for me is going out there and being as precise as possible," Flacco told me during a break in training camp. "It's hitting guys as accurately as I can and doing it where we're so consistent and it becomes second nature, just cleaning it up."
As Manning has discovered over the years -- and he has said largely the same things as Flacco when assessing his own game -- improving consistency in the regular season has proved troublesome. Will Flacco's career arc be a more impressive one? It's certainly possible, given the fact he is now entering the prime years of his career and he has the benefit of playing for an organization that consistently puts out playoff-quality teams.
Consider: In each of Flacco's first five seasons, the Ravens have made the playoffs. He's the first quarterback in NFL history to play in the postseason his first five years.
Are there more Super Bowls ahead?
"No doubt about it," Flacco said. "It's tough to say 'Yes, that's what we're going to do,' because you realize how hard it is. But we have the talent, the work ethic and everything you need to do it."
Most importantly, they have the quarterback, who I'm convinced is absolutely deserving of being included among the top in today's game. It's something he's been convinced of all along. And it's now reflected in how much money the Ravens have invested in him. Flacco took a calculated risk last year by playing out his rookie deal, and it paid off with a Super Bowl run. Flacco parlayed that into a six-year, $120.6-million deal, including $52 million guaranteed, putting himself into the elite category where he insisted he belonged in the first place.
There were some suggestions when Flacco signed the deal that it would hamper the Ravens' ability to retain and/or sign free agents, and there was even some insinuation that Flacco was being greedy, especially after Brady agreed to a deal in New England that was considered salary-cap friendly.
But Flacco said there hasn't been a hint of criticism from inside the walls of the Ravens' training complex.
"I didn't feel any, not at all," he said. "That says a lot about the guys that we have in here. I think they understand what it's all about. Everybody is playing for the right to make as much money as they can make."
Will the money change him? No way. This guy is about as unaffected by outside influences as you'll ever find, and his laid-back demeanor is no act. It's a personality trait that will serve him and his team well.
"I think my personality can help me in a lot of situations," he said. "It's not like I'm doing anything intentionally, and it's not something I think about. That's just the way I am."
That unflappable dynamic will be especially valuable with the extraordinary level of turnover the Ravens experienced in the offseason. His go-to receiver in the playoffs, Anquan Boldin, was traded to the 49ers. Tight end Dennis Pitta is out with a hip injury. Linebacker Ray Lewis retired. Defensive stars Ed Reed, Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe left as free agents.
A daunting task? That's not the word Flacco chooses.
"I think it's exciting," he said. "It's a good challenge."
He likes what he sees ahead. And while he won't talk specifically about a repeat, you get the feeling Flacco will not be surprised if the Ravens end up playing in the big game again.
"We have a lot of talent," Flacco said. "We're young, and I think our defense is really good, even though we've lost some guys. It's going to be an interesting season."
It is, mostly because he is the one who will make it that way.