Flacco shows growth in big-time feat

Joe Flacco pumped once to his right and flung a deep ball to Anquan Boldin.

The arm strength of the Baltimore Ravens quarterback as displayed by that 34-yard TD strike in the second quarter was never in question. His inability to consistently string such plays together throughout an entire game, let alone several at a time, is what led to some harsh critiques, even by some in his own locker room.

More games like the Ravens’ 44-13 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals at M&T Bank Stadium Monday night and Flacco will be considered what he contends he is: an elite quarterback.

“Sure he is. Of course he is,” coach John Harbaugh told reporters after the Ravens’ season-opening win. “He is a winner. He is one of the toughest quarterbacks I’ve been around. He’s the best quarterback I’ve been around.”

Standing nearby, Flacco agreed with his coach, who also advocated for a contract extension for his chief signal caller. “You all heard that. You heard that.”

Flacco was 21-of-29 passing for 299 yards with two touchdowns as he led a tweaked offense that relies heavily on the no-huddle. That means more audibles and play calls for Flacco, something that didn’t seem to burden the fifth-year pro as he guided an offense that punted just twice all night.

In fact, the Ravens, a team that has been anchored by a solid defense for more than a decade, was carried by the offense for a large portion of the contest. The Ravens ran the no-huddle for 22 of 46 plays through the first three quarters (offensive coordinator Cam Cameron didn’t go to it as the game was well in hand in the fourth) and the tactic led directly to Baltimore’s first three TDs.

That kind of offensive proficiency All-Pro Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, who won a Super Bowl with the franchise in 2000 and has called Baltimore home since he was a rookie in 1996, hasn’t seen often in his tenure here.

“I’ve been here a long time,” Lewis said with a smirk. “You can finish that off for me.”

Ravens safety Ed Reed, who set the NFL’s all-time mark for interception yardage (1,497) with a 34-yard interception return in the third quarter, famously said Flacco was prone to get “rattled” right before the AFC title game a season ago — a contest where Flacco actually outplayed New England Patriots quaterback Tom Brady, even though it was the Pats who advanced to the Super Bowl.

After Monday’s game, Reed appeared to be one of Flacco’s top proponents.

“Joe has gotten better every year,” Reed said. “That is what we’ve seen all camp with Joe, just throwing the ball to all those guys (and) putting it right in their chest (or) their hands. Those guys trust him and want to make plays for him.”

This was the first time the Ravens have scored more than 40 points against the Bengals and the 44 points set a Week 1 franchise record.

“Each game he is going to prove that he’s our guy and he can get the job done,” Ravens tight end Ed Dickson told FOXSports.com. “We want to grow up (as an offense). We proved that today by putting up 40-something points. Joe played well. We want to do this one game at a time, all the way to the Super Bowl."

Not that Flacco was perfect. He could have easily been picked off three times and there were certain occasions where there were some miscommunication with receivers. Those things happen early in the season, especially when weapons, like tight ends Dennis Pitta and Dickson, missed much of the preseason. Running back Ray Rice, who had two scores and 68 yards on the ground, can also spackle over some flaws.

“There were a couple things that we need to clean up as a whole,” Dickson said. “Overall, I think we played well. We want to take this victory and launch us into next week.”

Next up is the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday — and even more talk about Flacco’s contract status.

Flacco is in the final year of his rookie contract. The Ravens could place the franchise tag on him for next season if the negotiations fail, although that would be a steep price since it would cost the teams about $17 million and eat up nearly 14 percent of the team’s salary cap.

“Pay him whatever he asks for,” Harbaugh said. “Pay the man.”

Maybe Flacco is due a little more respect as those contract details get worked out.