OWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP) If a Super Bowl ring is necessary for an NFL quarterback to earn elite status, then Joe Flacco has some work to do before joining the ranks.
If durability, victories and playoff appearances are the necessary attributes, then Flacco - the leading passer in Baltimore Ravens history - has few peers.
During a week in which the Pittsburgh Steelers (6-3) face the Ravens (7-2) without injured quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Flacco is preparing to make his 74th consecutive start for Baltimore. He has never missed a game since being drafted in 2008, and under his direction, the Ravens are the only team to reach the postseason in each of the last four years.
No other quarterback in NFL history has ever led his team to the playoffs in his first four seasons.
``We've always said we think the world of Joe,'' Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said Wednesday. ``I personally hold him in the highest regard. We all believe in him, and we're excited to go into this game with him as our guy.''
And why not? Including the playoffs, Flacco has more wins over the past 4 1/2 years (63) than any other quarterback. Included in that total are two comeback victories in Pittsburgh, most notably last year's classic when Flacco connected with Torrey Smith for a 26-yard touchdown in the final minute of a 23-20 triumph.
Just as impressive is Flacco's ability to line up under center every week. Since the start of the 2008 season, only Eli Manning (129) and Phillip Rivers (105) have more consecutive starts among NFL quarterbacks. Tom Brady is a distant fourth with 57.
``I haven't played too long yet, but you want to show up for your teammates every Sunday,'' Flacco said. ``You do everything to make sure that happens.''
The Ravens have confidence in backup Tyrod Taylor, but Harbaugh will do whatever it takes to keep Flacco healthy.
``My wife rides horses and she says when a horse throws you, you're supposed to kind of lean forward, grab the neck and then when you jump off, you're supposed to roll to take away the momentum out of it. We have not worked on that drill with Joe,'' Harbaugh said with a grin. ``But he is durable. I think he's just a tough guy and we've protected him over the years.''
No one is prepared to compare Flacco to Cal Ripken, who put together a major league record run of 2,632 consecutive games with the hometown Baltimore Orioles. But Flacco's streak is impressive enough to bring up the question as to whether there have ever been any close calls.
``The toughest was back whenever we beat New England in that (January 2010) playoff game,'' Flacco said, recalling a deep hip and thigh bruise. ``I never thought I wasn't going to go, but I definitely had a tough time moving around that week. At times at practice it was tough to keep my legs underneath me. I could drop back and throw pretty comfortable, but moving around was tough.''
Flacco didn't have to do much that game except hand the ball to Ray Rice, who ran for 159 yards in a 33-14 victory. But there have been other games when Flacco had to carry load, such as last week against Oakland when he passed for 341 yards and three touchdowns. The quarterback took a seat during the fourth quarter of the 55-20 rout, but there have been plenty of Sundays when he was knocked on the rear of his pants after taking a tough hit in the pocket.
Every time, though, Flacco bounced back.
``Joe's tough. I don't want to go into weight room numbers, but the quarterback is actually pretty strong,'' Rice said. ``Our goal as an offensive group is to not let Joe get hit. We take pride in that. But even when he does get hit, I always look back and check on him and he's getting up and ready to roll.
``It says something about our quarterback. He's really unprotected. They say the running back position is tough, but I get to brace for some of those hits. I can protect my body. Usually when you get a hit on the quarterback, it's a free shot. He's taken a few of them but has been able to bounce back.''