Defense bails out Flacco again

His feisty tone and rambling respect talk were gone. Only his Fu Manchu remained late Sunday, a reminder of what had been his little defiant streak.

Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco had wanted to be regarded as a grown-ass man, like Brady and Rodgers. What he has to settle for is being the luckiest SOB in football, getting partial credit for what is actually the big-boy work of his defensive teammates. The Ravens defense yet again did all the heavy lifting in a 20-13 victory against the Houston Texans in the divisional round and has them going to the AFC Championship Game in Foxboro.

If his aspirations were undeterred by this, Flacco at least had the good sense not to say so. He wisely had dropped his whine about "I’m sure if we win, I’ll have nothing to do with why we won, not according to you guys" from last week.

What is funny is his prediction ended up being dead on. He had little to do with the W, though he did get the respect he demanded.

Thanks to Flacco, I respect this Ravens defense even more than before I landed in Baltimore.

I always knew this Ravens defense was good, always knew I was watching two of the best in the game in Ed Reed and Ray Lewis, always knew this was the nastiest of nasty. About midway through Sunday’s second half, it hit me: The Ravens defense is actually underrated.

They have been so good for so long we had started to take them for granted. We forgot how hard it is to be good on defense in a league that punishes it and how much they are asked to do when scoring is a struggle for your offense. Lewis and Reed and Co. kept trotting back out there Sunday, getting turnovers and stops. And then three downs and a punt later, they did it again.

We forget because they are too polite to remind us.

"Like I told Joe, no one wins games by themselves," Lewis said afterward. "We are in this as a family; we are in this as a team. Nothing on the outside matters. What matters is what we think on the inside of the building and what we feel about him and the confidence we have in him."

Or as Ravens coach John Harbaugh said: "You win the game no matter what."

This is what coaches say when their quarterback play forces them to win ugly, or what the Harbaugh boys have to say about their quarterbacks. If the Harbaugh brothers had a side bet about who could go further with the worse QB, then John has a decided advantage against his brother, Jim, who coaches the 49ers.

Alex Smith at least showed signs of life in 49ers victory Saturday. Flacco looked like himself.

The defensive win looks funny to us. This NFL season saw Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers and New Orleans’ Drew Brees throw for crazy amounts of yards, and records being obliterated, and flags flying for pass interference and roughing and anything that even closely resembles good defense.

Some of this is the evolution of the league. And some is an evolution furthered by NFL rules.

Commissioner Roger Goodell was in Baltimore on Sunday answering questions about his favorite things to talk about — 18-game schedules (God no!) and officiating (his answer about possibly looking into full-time officials felt prescient watching a botched fumble call in the Giants-Packers game). He also was asked about the thing nobody likes to talk about: Why does the league hate defense?

He talked abstractly about finding a balance, but this is not happening. The touchdowns and records are good for business. And if anything, it should be a reminder of just how amazing what Baltimore has been able to accomplish, by not doing what everybody else is.

This is what provoked Flacco’s complaint. "You guys want everybody to be Aaron Rodgers and be Tom Brady, but you guys realize those (teams) don’t run the ball, right?" Flacco said during the week leading up to the game. "If you guys want an elite quarterback, you have to stop complaining when we go out there and throw the ball 60 times a game, because that’s what elite quarterbacks do."

Flacco needs to stop worrying about comparisons to Brady and Rodgers and try to be Trent Dilfer.

He may not have been a great quarterback but he was good enough and he had the courtesy to say thank you. Hauling around Flacco’s butt has to be exhausting, and this Ravens defense does it with little complaint.

Did Houston’s defense play a role in the Ravens’ offensive struggles after the first quarter? Absolutely.

Wade Phillips, when not burdened by his head-coaching deficiencies, is a damn good defensive coordinator. And he had his Texans defense flying. But Flacco and Co. were up 17-3 and managed to allow this to become a game where they were battling until the final play.

There are two problems with the respect whine as far as I can tell.

1) It is so overdone. So you have to do it really well to stand out. And 2) It demands a big-time performance immediately after.

Flacco delivered on No. 1. Failed miserably at No. 2.

Twice in the final minutes did Reed have to make plays in the end zone to preserve the lead.

"We feel like we’re the big brother, so to speak, of the team," Reed said. "It’s not always going to be a blowout or a shootout game. It’s going to be hard fought."

As he talked, I noticed how his tightly cropped afro is now flecked with grey, a reminder of how long he has been doing this. Him and Lewis. Lewis resolutely stated plans to keep playing but Reed talked of "getting old. At one point, I won’t be up here. You’ll be interviewing another safety here in Baltimore."

Who knows how many more kicks at the can this Baltimore team will get? How many more championship chances this defense can give them?

So Flacco owes them to quit talking about respect and go earn it.

And Sunday against New England would be a good place to start.