BALTIMORE -- Some people scoffed when Joe Flacco dubbed himself elite. Others ridiculed the Ravens' quarterback for later declaring himself not one of but the best signal-caller in the game. But now Flacco, the Sports Illustrated cover boy of the week, has a chance to prove the masses wrong again.
A week after outgunning future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning in a 38-35 AFC divisional-round double-overtime win over the Broncos in Denver, the Ravens will travel to Foxboro to take on one of the best quarterbacks of his generation, Tom Brady.
But the Ravens like their chances with Flacco, whom Ray Lewis dubbed "The General" after their stunning win in the Mile High City.
"I call him Smokin' Joe -- cause he's got a gun on him," said receiver Jacoby Jones, who caught Flacco's 70-yard touchdown pass to tie the score with 31 seconds left in regulation.
Flacco's final stat line last week said it all: 18-for-34, 331 yards, three TDs and no interceptions. But his teammates said those numbers came as no surprise.
"I've never played with a guy with that much talent; I'm talking about physically," wideout Anquan Boldin said. "I think Joe is able to make any throw on the field . . . he does it all."
Lewis, who plans to retire after the season, said his quarterback is "growing up right before our eyes. No matter how big the game is, the game never gets too big for Joe . . . He has a great opportunity to etch his name into the record books.
"I'm glad to be along for the ride."
Flacco is the first starting NFL QB since the 1970 merger to start and win a playoff game in each of his first five seasons. According to ESPN, his postseason stats in the past four years (5-3, 213.5 passing yards per game, 12 touchdown passes, five interceptions) are comparable to Brady's (3-3, 279.2 passing yards per game, 15 TD passes, eight interceptions).
"If you look at his track record, the way that he's played, especially on the big stages," Boldin said, "it's easy to see why we consider him our franchise quarterback."
It seems the mainstream media finally is picking up on something the Ravens say they've known all along: Flacco is darn good.
Asked about Lewis' new nickname for him, the quarterback couldn't help but laugh. "Any time somebody like that comes up to you -- a leader like that -- a guy that's had so much success in this league and is so loved by so many people, it's obviously pretty cool," Flacco said.
No longer does he have to tell the world he's elite. If he wins Sunday, he might become part of the conversation going forward -- permanently.
"Ray Lewis said it right," running back Ray Rice said. "[Flacco] is The General. That's a lot of responsibility, but he's definitely taking it. He's taken it and ran with it."