From Comcast SportsNetFOXBOROUGH, Mass. (AP) -- No doubt about it.When you beat the best -- and Joe Flacco did that in consecutive games -- the skeptics should be silenced."I'm so glad we're going to the Super Bowl right now," Baltimore wide receiver Torrey Smith said, "so people can get off Joe's back."Flacco threw three touchdown passes in the second half, helping the Ravens reach the Super Bowl for the first time in 12 years with a 28-13 win over the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game Sunday.He beat two-time NFL MVP Tom Brady one week after outplaying Peyton Manning, who has won the award four times, in a 38-35 double-overtime win over the Denver Broncos. And that followed a 24-9 victory over budding star quarterback Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts in the wild-card round."We've always believed in Joe," coach John Harbaugh said, "and for Joe to come out and to have this kind of a game and this kind of a stage three weeks in a row -- Luck's a pretty good quarterback, Manning's a pretty good quarterback and Brady's a great quarterback."All those guys are great players, but Joe's a great quarterback. And Joe has proven that. He's not just proven it this year, he's proven it for five years."No NFL quarterback -- not Brady, not Manning -- has more than Flacco's 62 victories, including the postseason, since the start of the 2008 season. No NFL quarterback has more than his six postseason wins on the road. And no other quarterback has a postseason victory in each of his first five seasons during the Super Bowl era."He's a great quarterback," said wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who caught two touchdown passes. "I don't know why people keep doubting him because the bigger the situation is, the bigger he plays, and he's proven that time and time again. So maybe they'll get off his back now."Finally, he will be the most accomplished quarterback in one of his playoff games when he faces the 49ers, who are favored by 4 points, in New Orleans on Feb. 3.San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick may have made a splash with his running and passing skills, but he's started just nine games in his two pro seasons.Flacco has started every Ravens game -- 80 in the regular season, 12 in the postseason -- since they took him with the 18th pick of the 2008 draft out of Delaware.As a rookie, he played poorly in a 23-14 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC championship game. He got back to that game last season, but the Ravens lost 23-20 to the Patriots.But on the same field Sunday, Flacco completed 21 of 36 passes for 240 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. Brady went 29 for 54 for 320 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions."These games are tough to win and we've put ourselves in the position to win these games and, eventually, you're going to push through and play the way you need to," he said.A week earlier in a 38-35 double-overtime win over the Broncos, he went 18 for 34 for 331 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. That beat Manning's 28 for 43 for 290 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions.Flacco's passer ratings in this year's postseason games highlight his superiority -- 125.6 to Luck's 59.8, 116.2 to Manning's 88.3 and 106.3 to Brady's 62.3."I've always been a Joe Flacco fan," Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said.The Patriots led 13-7 at halftime but in a span of 10 minutes and one second Flacco threw touchdown passes of 5 yards to Dennis Pitta, and 3 and 11 yards to Boldin."They do a good job stopping the run and we knew we had to come out here in the second half and make some plays in the passing game," Flacco said.He sure did.After completing just 6 of 12 passes for 81 yards with no touchdowns before the break, he went 15 for 24 for 159 yards in the second half. He was 14 for 18 on the three touchdown drives and even scrambled once for 14 yards and a first down.In three playoff games this season he's thrown eight touchdown passes and not a single interception."He's been great all year, especially in these playoffs," Pitta said. "He deserves this more than anyone."Safety Ed Reed saw great potential in Flacco from the quarterback's rookie season."From the first snap (when) he went against our defense, I knew he was a smart guy," Reed said. "We blitzed him and he threw it straight to the sideline out of bounds because he knew we were coming. He's always been a leader (with) more than potential to lead us to where we're going right now."That should have been clear when Flacco guided the Baltimore offense to three AFC championship games in his five seasons.His opponents see it now that he's helped take the Ravens to the Super Bowl for the first time in his career."He is one of the elite quarterbacks," Patriots safety Steve Gregory said. "I know he gets a lot of flak for possibly not being that type of guy, but he is."And now Flacco can look to pad his resume with his first Super Bowl championship."It's about who can get ready and who can become their best at the right time and hit the ground running," he said. "And that's what we're doing."
Here are some of the top Chicago sports stories from a busy Sunday:
MESA, Ariz. – The Cubs turned Theo Epstein’s “Baseball is Better” speech from his first Wrigley Field press conference into a marketing pitch that might distract fans for a moment from an awful big-league product.
The 2017 “That’s Cub” ad campaign actually uses what started organically years ago within the farm system, two words that recognized a great at-bat or a heads-up play or a defensive stop.
Business vs. baseball is no longer the dominant storyline it had been during the early phases of the Wrigleyvile rebuild. Business and baseball are booming for what’s become Major League Baseball’s version of the Golden State Warriors.
It’s just interesting that a franchise valued at north of $2 billion has found so much inspiration on the back fields of this spring-training complex, where staffers you wouldn’t recognize get to work before dawn and players you’ve never heard of dream about their big break.
It’s not just drafting Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber. And trading for Anthony Rizzo, Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks and Addison Russell. And hiring a manager obsessed with T-shirts. Baseball operations became a marketing department, selling prospects to Cub fans, the Chicago media and the gurus putting together the rankings – and trying to get buy-in from players who all think they belong in The Show.
Minor-league field coordinator Tim Cossins gets credit for “When It Happens,” a theme that didn’t simply revolve around 1908 and the championship drought. Jason McLeod, the senior vice president who oversees scouting and player development, suggested pairing the W flag with that phrase, and it became this ubiquitous idea around the team.
“We tied everything into it,” McLeod said Sunday at Sloan Park. “When that time comes, when it happens, can you lay the bunt down? When it happens, can you execute a pitch? Can you go in and pinch-run, steal the base when the time comes?
“The big ‘When It Happens’ is when we win, of course, but for us in (player development), it was about everything that we’re going to be asked to do in that moment: Are you going to be ready when it happens?”
Now what? The defending World Series champs are going with: “Where It Happens.”
A bullet point from Epstein’s bio in this year’s media guide references how his first three first-round draft picks with the Cubs “combined to set up the go-ahead run in the top of the 10th inning of Game 7 of the 2016 World Series when Schwarber singled and (Albert) Almora pinch-ran, moved to second on Bryant’s deep fly to center, and scored on Ben Zobrist’s double.”
“We’re never going to forget about the importance of young players,” Epstein said. “There’s definitely a lot of talented, interesting prospects still in the system and sometimes they get a little overshadowed because of the star young players we have at the big-league level and how quickly some of those guys moved through the system. But there’s a lot of talent there.
“We’re going to lean on young players beyond our prospects, not just in trades, but also to provide organizational depth and also to serve as the next generation, the next infusion of talent at the appropriate time.
“But it’s a process. There’s going to be a lot of ups and downs in development for all these guys. And we have a ton of faith in our player development operation to help these guys along the way.”
So Ian Happ will start the season one phone call away at Triple-A Iowa and see if some combination of injuries and his switch-hitting skills and defensive versatility gets him to the North Side at some point. Or used as a trade chip for pitching, the way third baseman Jeimer Candelario and catcher Victor Caratini appear to be blocked.
Joe Maddon already compared Eloy Jimenez – who can’t legally buy a beer in Wrigleyville yet – to a young Miguel Cabrera or Edgar Martinez. The Cubs are practically begging for someone like Eddie Butler to pitch his way into the 2018 rotation.
By Monday morning, when the full squad reconvenes after a weekend trip to Las Vegas, the Cubs could start making cuts and shaping their Opening Night roster. But the Cubs are going to need so much more than the 25 players who will be introduced next Sunday at Busch Stadium. Maddon used 26 pitchers and 149 different lineups last season. This is “Where It Happens.”
“If this particular group of youngsters were in a different organization that had a greater need right now, you’d probably hear a lot more about these guys,” Maddon said. “But the fact that they’re stuck behind a Bryant and a Russell and a Javy (Baez) and a Rizzo and a (Willson) Contreras and a Schwarber, et cetera, et cetera, it becomes more difficult to really push or project upon these guys.
“But I think these young guys have gone about their business really well. If it’s bothering them or if they’re concerned about that, they’re not showing that. I think they’ve put their best foot forward.”