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Ray Rice vows to 'be smarter' after his playoff struggles continued Sunday

FootballBaltimore RavensIndianapolis ColtsNFL Pro BowlDenver BroncosJoe Flacco

Ray Rice knifed through the heart of the New England Patriots defense, into the end zone and into our collective memories, his 83-yard touchdown run in the 2009 playoffs quickly becoming one of the most unforgettable plays in Ravens history and in his young career.

On that frigid afternoon in Foxborough, Rice rushed for 159 yards and two touchdowns, carrying the Ravens offense and their hobbled quarterback, Joe Flacco, to a stunning wild-card win.

It was the only time in eight career playoff games that Rice topped 70 rushing yards, and his two fumbles in Sunday's win over the Indianapolis Colts gave him five for his postseason career.

After running through defenses during four straight 1,000-yard seasons, Rice has met resistance in postseason play. With opponents keying in on Rice and daring Flacco to beat them, the three-time Pro Bowl running back has not duplicated the individual production that he had in the upset of the Patriots three years ago, though he says team success is much more significant.

"You play the regular season, that's what you get paid for," he said Tuesday. "But in the playoffs, you are building a legacy. Obviously, I want to be a guy that's remembered for his playoff play."

Rice will get his next opportunity to add to his legacy in Saturday's divisional playoff at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Denver Broncos are ranked third in the NFL in rushing defense, allowing 91.1 rushing yards per game. They also forced 20 fumbles during the regular season, tied for fifth in the NFL.

Before rushing for 70 yards in Sunday's 24-9 win over the Colts, Rice had averaged fewer than four yards per carry in each of his previous four playoff games.

Rice has rushed for 514 yards on 122 postseason carries, and on running plays other than that tone-setting, 83-yard touchdown run in January 2010, he has averaged just 3.6 yards per carry.

"[The] playoffs are not about stats. [The] playoffs, for me, are about winning games," said Rice, who averaged 55.3 rushing yards in the team's last three postseason losses.

Rice averaged 4.7 yards per carry against the Colts and added a 47-yard reception on a screen play. But after the game, as productive backup running back Bernard Pierce changed clothes within earshot, Rice got defensive when a reporter uttered an unwelcome F-word in one of his questions.

"I'm not a fumbler. You guys know that, and that'll be the last time I address me fumbling," he said.

But because Rice coughed the ball up in the first quarter and then again in the fourth — and after coach John Harbaugh mostly relied on Pierce to run out the clock — pointed questions popped up again Tuesday.

After initially scoffing at one, Rice vowed to "be smarter" when trying to bust a big play.

"That's not like him, so I know he'll get that right and get that fixed," said Pro Bowl fullback Vonta Leach, adding that Rice, who takes great pride in his ball security, "beat himself up about it a little bit."

In his five regular seasons, Rice has fumbled just seven times — an average of once every 218 touches. But after Sunday, the 25-year-old is averaging one fumble every 30 touches in the playoffs. The opposing defense has recovered four of Rice's five postseason fumbles.

The most notorious of the bunch came at Heinz Field during the 2010 playoffs. His fumble after a five-yard catch swung the momentum as the Pittsburgh Steelers erased a two-touchdown deficit to stun the Ravens.

The defense twice bailed out Rice on Sunday, not letting the Colts score on either lost fumble.

"He was trying probably too hard to make a play and trying to create, like Ray does," Harbaugh said. "[He was] probably trying to do a little more than he needed to do, and the ball got away from his body, and he exposed it a little bit. He knew that right away coming off the field."

Those two fumbles aside, the Ravens rushing attack has been effective since the Ravens rushed for just 56 yards in a 34-17 loss to the Broncos at M&T Bank Stadium in Week 15.

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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