By Larry Fine
(Reuters) - Underrated Joe Flacco said before the season that he thought he was the best quarterback in the NFL, and he backed up his self-confidence by leading the Baltimore Ravens into the Super Bowl.
The strong-armed Flacco threw three touchdown passes through blustery wind in a second-half surge that carried Baltimore to a 28-13 road victory over the New England Patriots in Sunday's AFC championship.
Flacco has shown impeccable timing as the 28-year-old shifted his salary drive into high gear as his initial five-year $12 million deal expires after this season.
"I assume everybody thinks they're a top-five quarterback," Flacco told a Baltimore radio station last year. "I mean, I think I'm the best. I don't think I'm top five, I think I'm the best.
"I don't think I'd be very successful at my job if I didn't feel that way."
Flacco was initially mocked after making those statements, but has put his self-confidence into action as demonstrated when he explained a change in approach discussed by the Ravens during halftime when they trailed the Pats 13-7.
"We hadn't gotten much going on offense. Our defense was playing really well, it was still a six-point game, all we had to do was go down and put the ball in the end zone," he said.
"We felt like we had to score, had to put pressure on the (defensive backs), put pressure on the linebackers in coverage. We knew we had to come out here in the second half and make some plays in the passing game with some of our guys."
As the saying goes, it is not bragging if you back it up.
Before last season, New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning told ESPN radio he considered himself an "elite" quarterback, and then backed it up with a Super Bowl triumph that brought him MVP honors for the NFL title game.
Flacco needs one more win to follow the script.
"I've always believed in Joe," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said about the quarterback taken 18th overall in the 2008 NFL Draft. "Joe's a great quarterback. He's proven that, and he's not just proven that this year, he's proven it for five years."
When he entered the NFL, Flacco ran a conservative offense for a Ravens team built on a stifling defense. As he matured and the veteran defense aged, he has grown into the leader of an offense now regarded as the most potent unit on the team.
The quarterback from the unheralded University of Delaware football program may not have intended to be taken literally about his boast of being the best, but his dynamic postseason has forced doubters to reconsider his status.
Through three playoff games this season, he has thrown eight touchdown passes and no interceptions, outdueling number one overall pick Andrew Luck of the Colts and future Hall of Famers Peyton Manning of the Broncos and the Patriots' Tom Brady.
During the second round of the playoffs, Flacco heaved a 70-yard touchdown pass in the last minute of regulation against Denver to force overtime and set up a Ravens victory.
Flacco has a 8-4 career record in the playoffs, becoming the first quarterback to win at least one playoff game in each of his first five seasons and moving past Eli Manning into top spot on the NFL list of road playoff wins by a quarterback with six.
He has not been too shabby in the regular season either, with 54 regular-season wins in his five seasons. This season he threw for 22 touchdown and 10 interceptions.
"He is one of the elite quarterbacks," Patriots safety Steve Gregory told reporters. "I know he gets a lot of flak for not being that type of guy, but he is."
Team mates were already Flacco believers.
"I'm a little biased because I've always been a Joe Flacco fan," said linebacker Ray Lewis.
Receiver Anquan Boldin, who caught two of Flacco's TD passes against the Patriots, was not surprised by his performance.
"I don't know why people keep doubting him because the bigger the situation is, the bigger he plays," said Boldin, who has also reached a Super Bowl with the Arizona Cardinals.
"And he's proven that time and time again. So maybe they'll get off his back now."
(Reporting by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by Frank Pingue)