NEW ORLEANS -- The debate about whether Joe Flacco could be labeled an "elite" quarterback maybe ended Sunday night, along with the career of Ray Lewis.
After all, no less an authority than Flacco himself reluctantly declared himself elite the past season, then he walked the walk against the San Francisco 49ers to bring a third Lombardi Trophy back to Baltimore (counting the one the Colts earned in Super Bowl V).
Flacco also now has something that Ben Roethlisberger, a quarterback he has had to look up to the past five years, does not have. He is a Super Bowl MVP.
Arguments can be made that Roethlisberger deserved to win that award for his play in Super Bowl XLIII, but the vote went to Santonio Holmes, who may go down as the offensive version of the Cowboys' Larry Brown, the MVP in Super Bowl XXX who was never heard from again.
Ravens receiver Jacoby Jones was an even better candidate than Holmes was four years ago; Jones caught a 56-yard touchdown pass and ran a kickoff back 108 yards Sunday for another touchdown. But the vote went to Flacco in a landslide as he, according to one story, "validated" himself, which means he probably will not have to pay for parking in Baltimore evermore.
"I've never cared," Flacco said about the doubters after leading the Ravens to a 34-31 victory Sunday against San Francisco at Mercedes-Benz Superdome in the longest Super Bowl game played because of the 34-minute blackout. "I don't ever want to feel like I'm in a position to defend myself; it's just not right. I don't have to do that. We'll have this thing forever. Everybody on that team will be connected to each other forever and that's something pretty special."
Forever has a way of not lasting long for Super Bowl teams. Flacco can check with Roethlisberger and the Steelers about that. Each time they won a Super Bowl in this century, they followed with one, big hangover. In 2006, they went 8-8 and their coach quit. In 2009, they went 9-7 and missed the playoffs.
Have the Ravens passed the Steelers as the dominant force in the AFC North Division? Of course they have; they just won the Super Bowl in a year in which the Steelers went 8-8 and missed the playoffs. And that will mean a whole lot of nothing in 2013, when Cincinnati might pop up as the dominant team in the division.
Unlike the Steelers, the Ravens are under the projected salary cap by about $12 million. But like the Steelers, they have a ton of free agents and Flacco is one of them. There is speculation they could make him their franchise player but that would cost them about $20 million against their 2013 cap, quickly shooting them into Steelers over-the-cap range.
Other free agents include Ed Reed, who says he wants to play in 2013, along with left tackle Bryant McKinnie, linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, cornerback Cary Williams and defensive end Paul Kruger, a Steelers nemesis.
As a Super Bowl team, Baltimore will not be remembered among the best. They finished the season 10-6 and only a safety's comic misplay of Flacco's deep pass in Denver kept them from being eliminated before they could reach the AFC championship.
But the Ravens found a way to win that one, found a way to hold off a 49ers furious comeback Sunday and that second Lombardi looks the same as the first one, the same as any of the Steelers' six.
"We've been put through those situations so when they come up, we don't know if we are going to be successful in them," Flacco said after his first Super Bowl game. "But the bottom line is, the moment doesn't get too big. We are comfortable. We've been there before. We've battled before. We've succeeded before. We are not worried about the outcome.
"We just go out there and play football, execute and we believe that if we do that, and we do that to our ability, then eventually it is going to work out."