It's a tale of two Flaccos.
Somewhere between the half-flexing, half-raising arm posture of Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco and the shoulders slumped, defeatist saunter to the sidelines of Joe Flacco lays the true Joe Flacco.
Very few players in NFL history have touched the highest high of performance like Flacco did in Baltimore's upset playoff win over the New England Patriots.
Like any aggressive predator in nature, Flacco sniffed the blood of his enemy. In this case, the absence of Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib and safety Patrick Chung. Sensing the kill, he set out to lay waste to the heavily favored home team.
That's one version of Flacco - yawping triumphantly as he looks at his sideline and clutching his fist in a victorious stance after throwing another deep touchdown pass. He's confident, decisive and aggressive.
Just a few weeks earlier, the Other Flacco gave chase to Broncos DB Chris Harris, who returned a poor Flacco throw - arguably one of the worst decisions he's made as a pro - 98 yards for a touchdown.
Flacco's dogged pursuit of the more agile Harris was pretty much the only positive contribution Flacco made in the first three quarters of the 34-17 rout in Baltimore. He lifted himself off the turf at M&T Bank Stadium, and slowly slumped back to the bench.
Quite the turnaround from Week 15 to Super Bowl Sunday. Quite the norm for Flacco. The hunted has become the hunter. It's happened often throughout his career.
Some will credit his resurgence to the removal of offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and the insertion of quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell. Statistically though, such highs and lows have been plenty common for Flacco. He's experienced a drop in passer rating of over 50 points from one game to the next 12 times in his 80 regular season starts. He has 31 games with a rating of 100 or higher. He has 23 with a rating of 70.1 or lower.
And with those highs and lows go the Ravens. Baltimore had won 15-straight games at M&T Bank Stadium before losing on a last-second field goal to Pittsburgh this year. Their next home game was the massacre against the Broncos.
Never before in the NFL has an entire team taken on the personality of its quarterback as much as it does today. The AFC Champion Baltimore Ravens are a perfect example of that. And with Flacco, the most hotly debated quarterback in the league, both sides are dissected and reconstructed, only to be ripped apart again.
It's no wonder Flacco is the only quarterback in the league right now to bring his team to a Super Bowl after being forced to play into the final year of his rookie contract without an extension.
As precise and dangerous as an assassin, Flacco shredded the Patriots decimated secondary starting on the team's second drive of the second half. Trailing 13-7, there wasn't much even halftime-adjustment-master Bill Belichick could do when the Ravens saw their opportunity. Operating out of a no-huddle offense, Flacco went 6-for-10 for 64 yards, including a 5-yard strike to Dennis Pitta to grab the lead.
It was all Flacco after that. Behind two more second-half touchdowns, the Ravens coasted to a 28-13 win, Flacco's first AFC Championship win in three tries.
To that point in his career, Flacco was given the backhanded compliment of having won playoff games in his first five seasons. He had never won an AFC Championship game. The "Always a Bridesmaid, Never a Bride" label followed him season-to-season, despite his insistence on being one of the best quarterbacks in the game. He became the exception proving both rules; a passer doesn't need to be statistically dominant to be considered among the best, and a quarterback must do more than just lead his team to wins in the wild card and divisional rounds to be considered the best.
His performances in the postseason weren't much to brag about early in his career. He posted passer ratings lower than 62 in five of his first seven playoff games, including a 13-for-30, three interception disaster in the 2008 AFC Championship game at Pittsburgh, his rookie season.
The days of leaning on his early career shortcomings are over, though. He's posted passer ratings of 100 or higher in his last five playoff games, including his three touchdown, no turnover performance against New England this year.
With eight touchdowns and zero interceptions so far in these playoffs, Flacco has gone from goat to grandeur. Only six quarterbacks ever have thrown eight touchdown passes with no interceptions in the postseason. He has some fairly exclusive company - Joe Montana, Steve Young, Drew Brees, Troy Aikman and Phil Simms. All five of them won Super Bowls and were named MVP of the championship game.
Win or lose Sunday, no one can confuse Flacco for Young or Montana or Brees or Aikman.
Of the players on that list, only Simms (74.6) has a lower career passer rating than Flacco (86.3). The passing paradox that encapsulates Flacco doesn't end there, however.
How many of them would have finished 17th in DYAR in the regular season? How many of them would have been bested by the likes of Christian Ponder, Sam Bradford, Matt Hasselbeck and Jake Locker in QBR?
How is it possible Flacco can be compared to Montana? His 0.3 QBR in a Week 7 loss at Houston was the lowest output of any quarterback in the five years the stat has tracked.
Fans debate whether any of these things make him an "elite" quarterback. The Ravens wonder how much to pay him.
The interesting and maddeningly frustrating issue with the Elite buzz is that it has no definition. Simply argued, it's stats and wins. Flacco detractors point to his lack of stats (he's never thrown for more than 25 touchdowns in a season and never had fewer than 10 interceptions). Supporters point out it's about winning in the postseason (he carries an 8-4 postseason record into Super Bowl XLVII).
Maybe it's about contracts.
That only raises the question - why hasn't Flacco been paid? One of the main reasons why the Ravens have been successful throughout Flacco's tenure as their starting quarterback is the lack of significant money spent on the offensive side of the ball while still producing at a decent rate.
In comparison, Atlanta lost the NFC Championship game to San Francisco while paying QB Matt Ryan $11 million (with a $12,990,000 cap charge). Flacco carried an $8 million cap charge. That's nearly $5 million in extra savings the Ravens can use to sign, say, an All-Pro fullback (Vonta Leach) and keep Bryant McKinnie sitting and rested for the playoff run.
Leach and McKinnie are two vastly underrated reasons why the Ravens offense has flourished this postseason. Flacco has had plenty of time to throw and they've run the ball well overall. Teams with those marquee quarterbacks do have that advantage, but the key to Baltimore's success is getting more from less.
Flacco, a quarterback who was drafted and signed under the old CBA, was given a 5-year, $30 million contract upon being the 18th-overall pick by Baltimore in 2008. That's more than Carolina's Cam Newton, the first-overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft - the first under the new CBA.
Even with his $8 million cap hit in 2012, his average deal made him the 23rd-highest paid quarterback in the NFL. He made mere pennies on the dollar compared to Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, the two legends he slayed in the playoffs. Not that pointing out he outplayed his more decorated colleagues in the playoffs holds any tangible value, but it's certainly something his agent will use as leverage.
The new CBA greatly skews the comparable market for every position, especially quarterback. With Bradford getting $50 million guaranteed in 2010, and even backups Alex Smith ($8 million) and Matt Flynn ($6.5 million) getting paid more on average than Flacco has, he represents the minority inside the minority. He's a pre-CBA quarterback, but a mid-first round pick, and he hasn't gotten an extension.
Translation: No quarterback has started 100 percent of his team's games the last five years at such a low salary.
While Bradford's contract is more than twice as much as Newton, Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin, quarterbacks who have done less than Flacco overall (Flynn and Smith) are making more because they are on their second contracts.
Flacco's alleged request for $20 million annually is as much for what he can do for the Ravens in the future as it is making up for being comparatively underpaid at the tail end of his rookie deal.
Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome clearly doesn't see it that way. Choosing instead to give running back Ray Rice the big money contract before the 2012 season, it's expected Flacco will follow the same route this offseason - get slapped with the franchise tag at $14.6 million, and work toward an extension before the season.
This is where pride comes into play. Currently, Flacco is set to play in his 19th game this season (he sat out their Week 17 loss to Cincinnati, the first game of his career he's missed), all of which have been played without a cent of guaranteed money in 2013. His agent is going to reach for the contracts of Peyton Manning (5-year, $96 million) and Drew Brees (5-year, $100 million).
Statistically, his career regular season numbers are much more Jay Cutler than Manning or Brees. Through the first five years of their NFL careers:
Interceptions are the most glaring difference, particularly considering Cutler has played in 68 games compared to Flacco's 80. But Flacco has fumbled 10 fewer times (48) than Cutler, while Cutler leads the sack race, 199-174.
Cutler signed a five-year, $49.7 million contract in 2009. Adjust upward for inflation and far more postseason success and it's a starting place. To defend Flacco's likely total rejection of such a deal, the franchise tag alone is worth $14.6 million, and it'd be perfectly fair for him to expect at least that in the first year of the deal.
After his first contract, a six-year, $48 million deal he signed with the Colts upon being the first pick of the 1998 draft, Manning signed a seven-year, $99.2 million deal, an average of $14.1 million a year.
Through the first five years of their careers, Flacco and Manning aren't actually as far apart as one may think.
The numbers can be sliced and diced and Newsome's suggestion that they'll tag Flacco not long after the Super Bowl - win or lose - simply buys them time to work out one of the most intriguing contract extensions in recent memory.
It's not whether he'll play in Baltimore in 2014 - he absolutely will. It's about whether Newsome and the Ravens see the good version of Flacco as his more dominant side, or the bad one.