By Steve Ginsburg
NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Joe Flacco put an exclamation point on his amazing playoff run and proved he belongs in the fraternity of the National Football League's elite quarterbacks by leading the Baltimore Ravens to a Super Bowl title.
After out-duelling Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady to reach the Super Bowl, Flacco proved to be the steady hand in a 34-31 victory over the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday.
Flacco has had his share of critics despite leading the Ravens to the playoffs each year since arriving in the league as a first-round draft choice out of tiny Delaware in 2008.
The Ravens would win a game or two in the postseason but failing to reach the Super Bowl was a black mark on his quest to be considered in the same class as the league's top guns.
But Flacco's postseason credentials this year put him in that category: Eleven touchdown passes, zero interceptions. He might be soft-spoken but his numbers were loud.
In Sunday's victory over the 49ers, Flacco completed 22 of 33 passes for 287 yards and three touchdowns but another number was even more telling of his performance.
The Ravens' third down efficiency was nine of 16 (56 percent). That is where games are won and lost. San Francisco was two of nine on third downs.
On the drive that ultimately won the game for the Ravens, Flacco decided to roll the dice and won.
"We are sitting at third and six-inches (for a first down)," said Ravens coach John Harbaugh. "Joe has three play options and decides to throw a fade to Anquan (Boldin).
"Throws it right on the money and Anquan goes up and makes the play. To me it shows you he has guts. He has got the guts of a burglar. He was doing it all night, making plays."
Ultimately, Justin Tucker's field goal on that drive provided the game-winning points. Flacco, justifiably, wins the Most Valuable Player award.
Ravens running back Ray Rice is convinced Flacco is "the best quarterback in football." Future first-ballot Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis is always having to defend Flacco.
"I am a Joe Flacco fan. For him to come in and do what he did today, make some of the throws he made, that's what we've always seen," he said.
The 28-year-old Flacco is now a free agent and the Ravens organization has said it will do whatever it takes to keep him in Baltimore.
In an age of chest-thumping athletes, Flacco is quiet.
"I've never cared," Flacco said after the Super Bowl of his naysayers. "I don't ever want to feel like I'm in a position to (have to) defend myself. It's just not right."
Lewis, perhaps the NFL's most inspirational player ever, retired after the Super Bowl. He said Flacco has the ability to become the team's new leader but he would be better served by being a little more vocal.
It is not likely to happen.
Flacco's reaction to being named Super Bowl MVP: "They have to give it to one guy and I'm glad that I got it."
If you ask the 49ers, they would likely say Flacco's numbers did the talking on Sunday.
(Editing by Frank Pingue)