OWINGS MILLS, Md. (AP) — Joe Flacco is already in playoff mode for the Baltimore Ravens, who hope to ride his hot streak well into January.
After missing the entire preseason with a back injury, Flacco threw 10 interceptions and only eight touchdown passes over the first nine games. At that point, Baltimore stood at 4-5 and seemed destined to miss the playoffs for a third straight year.
Since then, Flacco has tossed eight TD passes and been intercepted only twice. Baltimore is 5-1 over that span, and needs only to beat Cincinnati (6-9) on Sunday to earn an AFC wild-card berth.
"We've been working hard all year to get to the point where we are," Flacco said Wednesday. "We feel we're playing good football."
Now in his 10th season, Flacco reached the playoffs in each of his first five years in the league. In the 2012 postseason, he threw for 1,140 yards and 11 touchdowns without being intercepted, capping the run with a 34-31 victory over San Francisco as Super Bowl MVP.
Flash forward to last Saturday, when Flacco ran onto the field against Indianapolis with the Ravens nursing a 16-13 lead. It wasn't exactly a Super Bowl, but it was a game Baltimore had to win to maintain control of its playoff destiny.
Flacco deftly directed a 14-play, 75-yard drive, going 7 for 8 for with a fourth-quarter touchdown pass to Maxx Williams to cement a 23-16 victory .
"That was a sweet drive," Flacco said. "We knew we had to put six points on the board right there in order to win."
The Ravens have come to expect that from Flacco, especially at this time of year. He's got a career record of 22-13 over the season's final four games and is 15-5 at home in December.
His performance this season is particularly impressive, not just because he missed all that time with a back injury but because he's been operating behind a tattered offensive line that lost Marshal Yanda, Alex Lewis and John Urschel in the early going.
Fortunately for Flacco, the offensive front has become a cohesive unit that is providing him excellent protection. Over the last five games, the Ravens have allowed only four sacks and Flacco has been intercepted only once.
"These guys are playing real good football at this point," the quarterback said. "They've been working really hard at it all year long. It's definitely exciting for me as a quarterback to see how well they're playing."
Whether the Ravens are fighting for a playoff spot or playing out the string in a disappointing season, you couldn't tell by Flacco's demeanor. He's been through too many good games and poor outings to let emotion get the best of him.
"When I first came here last year, I said Joe is Joe Cool," tight end Benjamin Watson said. "He doesn't really go up, he doesn't go down. He kind of stays very steady. That's an attribute that allows him to survive the ups and downs."
Flacco and the Ravens are looking for the 2017 regular season to end how it started — with a win over the Bengals. Content to let the Baltimore defense do the heavy lifting, Flacco returned from a quiet summer in September to complete only nine passes in a 20-0 rout.
"They beat us by 20, so obviously he did a decent job," Cincinnati safety George Iloka said. "By the end of the year you should be better, your timing should be better. He looks sharper."
Flacco trails only Tom Brady as the league's winningest quarterback since 2008 (including postseason). Seeking his seventh career playoff appearance, Flacco — and the Ravens, for that matter — won't think about January until the workload in December is done.
"I don't think anybody in our locker room is looking ahead to January," Watson said. "I haven't been around here long enough to see January Joe other than from afar. I know January Joe is going to be awesome."