If given the chance, Ray Rice is going to run all over you. Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots know this, so the AFC Championship game could come down to stopping the Baltimore Ravens on the ground.
Rice is 0-2 in Conference Championship games, with 69 total yards from 22 carries. If the game ends and he has statistics like that, the Patriots will advance to the Super Bowl once again.
Against the Patriots themselves, Rice has 292 yards across three meetings and a 1-2 record overall. The matchup is finely poised, but victories over Andrew Luck, Peyton Manning and then Tom Brady would seal a remarkable road to the Super Bowl for Baltimore.
A lot has been written about the Ravens’ playoff run this year, and much of it has focused on Ray Lewis. The team will obviously want to win the Super Bowl for his big swansong. Rice is no exception, and when speaking to NFL.com he outlined the team spirit that the Ravens possess:
Our guy (Lewis), every game can be his last game. Nothing against anyone else, but this is for real here. This is for real. This team is special and he's the leader. This team is so unselfish.
The Ravens accelerated into the playoffs in a similar manner to the New York Giants last season. The final two regular-season games saw the Ravens offense take a leap forward, totalling 533 yards against the New York Giants and 352 against the Cleveland Browns.
This has continued through the playoffs, and Rice has been a big part of that.
He rushed for 131 yards and a touchdown on 30 carries against the Denver Broncos. This success on the ground allowed Joe Flacco to throw for 331 yards and three touchdowns.
The running game set up the air attack, just as it should. Yes, the game went to double overtime, which inevitably inflates the stats, but the ratio of 39 carries to 34 passing attempts illustrates that Denver had no answer to Rice.
Who is the key to the outcome of the game?
With a quarterback like Tom Brady, the Patriots will always find ways to score. The Baltimore defense, while traditionally solid, hasn’t been as successful this year.
While it has been without Terrell Suggs and Ray Lewis for a lot of the season, the defense still surrendered 344 points in the regular season at an average of 21.5 per game.
While good for 12th in the NFL, it needs to do better against a quarterback who has proved himself in the playoffs so many times already.
Joe Flacco, on the other hand, isn’t likely to take the Ravens and carry them to the Super Bowl, so they need Rice to make an impact on the ground.
As stated by Rice himself, the Ravens have managed to keep themselves in the hunt by converting crucial third downs (via NFL.com).
If the Patriots can shut down Rice early, they make the Baltimore offense more predictable, especially on third down.
Flacco will be forced to beat them with his arm, which could go either way. The Ravens’ signal-caller isn’t a bad quarterback by any means, but questions still remain about his ability to dominate a game,
If Rice is no longer a factor, those questions will remain long after the game is over.