NEW ORLEANS — After a performance such as this, there is only one thing left for an often-questioned quarterback to ask.
Hey, America: Was that elite enough for you?
Joe Flacco, Baltimore's new favorite flavor, was lights-out Sunday night. For most of the Super Bowl, he was as precise as Montana, and as poised as Brady, and as big-armed as Elway. He was as elusive as Young. He was as controlled as Aikman. He made big plays like whichever Manning you wish to name.
Flacco, the Ravens' quarterback, was brilliant in Baltimore's 34-31 win. The Super Bowl itself went dark for some 34 minutes in the third quarter, but nothing could dim Flacco, the game MVP.
Oh, there for a while the 49ers' impressive Colin Kaepernick tried. Kaepernick played the second half in a blur, and in his 10th start in the NFL, he darned near pulled out the game after facing a 22-point deficit.
In the end, however, Flacco was unflappable. He was steady, and he made the big plays, and he measured up to the size of the stage. When things were going wrong, he was the steadying hand for his team.
It is a quarterback's league, and from Bart Starr to Terry Bradshaw to Phil Simms to Doug Williams to Kurt Warner and all the rest, the Super Bowl is a quarterback's game. Still, few passers have been better than Flacco was in this game. He grabbed the moment by the throat and never let go.
By the end of the game, he was the best quarterback Baltimore has seen since the days of Johnny Unitas.
In doing so, Flacco answered all those questions that have lingered since those days when the Ravens used to drag their quarterbacks around. In those days, the days of Trent Dilfer and Kyle Boller and the rest, quarterbacks were asked to stay out of the way but not to try to do much more. Over the years, Joe put the "flak" in "Flacco."
Flacco has changed that. This was his coming-out party, the way the Super Bowl was once for Tom Brady before he was elite, and for Ben Roethlisberger before he was elite, and for Eli Manning before he was elite.
"He's taken a lot of criticism over his career for whatever reason, but we've always believed in him," said tight end Dennis Pitta. "We know what kind of player he is. He's showed up on the biggest stage and performed. He deserves everything."
This time the Ravens quarterback wasn't a follower. This time he was the guy who kept making big plays on the way to the end zone.
For instance, there was the third-and-4 play when Flacco fired a bullet up the middle for a 13-yard touchdown pass to Anquan Boldin.
For instance, there was the third-and-7 play when Flacco was running desperately away from Ahmad Brooks and he heaved the ball down the sideline as if he were throwing it away. Then Boldin was coming from nowhere, leaping and rebounding the ball for a 31-yard gain.
For instance, there was the third-and-10 play when Flacco stepped up in the pocket and launched a deep pass to Jacoby Jones, who fell to the turf, rose and made a move on his way into the end zone.
"He has the guts of a cat burglar," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said.
Even after San Francisco came back to make a game of it in the second half, Flacco didn't get rattled. Even after the 49ers cut that 22-point deficit to two in the fourth quarter, Flacco led his team on a 10-play drive for a field goal. Without that drive, the Ravens might not have won this game.
"It's fitting we won like that," Flacco said. "We're a tough, blue-collar city. That's the way our games come down."
Overall, Flacco hit 22 of 33 passes for 287 yards and a quarterback rating of 124.2. He threw for three touchdowns and once again wasn't intercepted. In these playoffs, Flacco threw for 11 touchdowns and never was intercepted. The 11 touchdowns in a postseason ties the record held by Joe Montana and Warner.
Then there is this: One quarterback in history has thrown for 1,000 yards, at least 10 TDs and no interceptions in one postseason. His name: Joe Flacco.
Just asking, but what exactly does "elite" mean to you?
Oh, if you think it means one of the top, say, five quarterbacks in the NFL, Flacco probably is another one or two of these Super Bowl runs from being there. After all, this is a league of Mannings and Brady and Brees and Rodgers and Roethlisberger.
But if you define elite quarterbacks as the ones who can carry a team to the Lombardi Trophy, well, the arguments are closed. Flacco has great pocket presence, and his arm is as strong as anyone's. As far as performance under pressure? This game proves he has that, too.
After this, there will be a new perception of Flacco. A Super Bowl does that for a quarterback. He will no longer be the player the Ravens fear.
He will be their best chance at doing this again.
And really, isn't that what being elite is all about?