With new offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell calling a more balanced array of plays, the Ravens have rushed for 200.7 yards per game the past three weeks while averaging 4.9 yards per carry. Pierce has done more damage, out-rushing Rice in each game, though Rice played sparingly in the regular season finale.

Together, Rice and his understudy piled up 173 yards on 28 carries Sunday.

"We're putting more of an emphasis on the run," Leach said. "Guys are just taking care of their responsibilities and our running backs are doing a great job of hitting holes and making people miss on the second level."

But Rice hasn't consistently done that in the playoffs. His longest rush during the past three postseasons was his 18-yard run in the fourth quarter of Sunday's win. He fumbled on that run.

Meanwhile, three other Pro Bowl running backs ran wild during wild-card weekend. Houston's Arian Foster rushed for 140 yards and a touchdown. Seattle's Marshawn Lynch had 132 rushing yards and a touchdown. Minnesota's Adrian Peterson, the only one whose team was eliminated, rumbled for 99 yards.

Rice, annually among the league leaders in yards from scrimmage, pointed to his production as a pass catcher while defending his postseason track record. He has caught 30 passes for 255 yards and a touchdown, but he has just six catches for 78 yards in his past three playoff games.

There is also his unseen impact, the kind that doesn't show up on a stat sheet. When opposing safeties creep toward the line of scrimmage to plug running lanes, opportunities are created for Flacco, who has thrown for 764 passing yards and six touchdowns in his past three playoff games.

"People have to account for him," said Leach, who rushed for a touchdown Sunday. "We've got a lot of playmakers on offense, so when people key in on Ray, it just opens things up for everyone else."

But none of those playmakers are more feared and fulminant than Rice, and that long run against the Patriots three years ago serves as a lasting reminder of his ability to take over a game.

To beat the red-hot Broncos, the Ravens need Rice to be at his best. And he is aware of that.

"It's time to step it up another level," Rice said.

matt.vensel@baltsun.com

twitter.com/mattvensel

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