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Rice: 'Perfect guy' for Ravens' offense

Ravens running back Ray Rice eludes Colts linebacker Jerrell Freeman during the Raven's Jan. 6, 2013 wild-card playoff win over the Colts in Baltimore.
Ravens running back Ray Rice eludes Colts linebacker Jerrell Freeman during the Raven's Jan. 6, 2013 wild-card playoff win over the Colts in Baltimore. (DYLAN SLAGLE/STAFF PHOTO , Carroll County Times)

It was the signature play of the Baltimore Ravens' 2012 regular season.

The outlook was bleak. Trailing the Chargers by three points in San Diego, the Ravens were facing a fourth-and-29 from their own 37-yard-line with less than two minutes to play.

"We needed a miracle," Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs told reporters later.

It sure didn't look like they'd be getting one initially, when quarterback Joe Flacco dumped off a pass to Ray Rice just past the line of scrimmage.

"Check down, Hey Diddle Diddle, Ray Rice up the middle," Rice said later, uttering a catchphrase that soon turned up on T-shirts.

Then Rice did what he does in space.

He made two Chargers miss him with a nifty cut to the left near midfield. He shed a would-be tackler. He used his speed to outrun half the defense. Finally, he took advantage of an Anquan Boldin down-field block and bulled into two defenders to accumulate the required yardage.

The Ravens had done exactly what the Chargers had wanted them to do, thrown short in front of their entire defense. Yet Rice made it work for 31 yards and a first down.

"It's going to go down in history. It was just a remarkable play," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said afterward. "It was the greatest play I've ever seen or been a part of."

It was pretty important, too, given that it allowed the Ravens to kick a field goal to send the game into overtime, where they won it. Considering the Ravens finished with 10 wins - and it took 10 wins to reach the postseason - converting on fourth-and-29 played a major role in Baltimore's wild run to Super Bowl XLVII.

Rice had some big moments in the AFC playoffs, too.

In the Ravens' first playoff game, against Indianapolis, he took a screen pass in the right flat, made a gravity-defying spin move to elude a defender, and raced 47 yards just before halftime to set up the game's first touchdown and energize the offense.

In the AFC Championship game at New England, midway through the third quarter with the Ravens trailing by six points, virtually the same play again saw Rice make the initial defender miss and scamper 15 yards for a first down. Five plays later, Flacco threw a touchdown pass to put Baltimore ahead to stay.

In-between those two games, Rice carried 30 times for 131 yards and a touchdown in sub-freezing conditions at Denver to help win that one.

Hard to imagine it, but five years ago, when he was a second-team All-American coming out of Rutgers, the knock on Rice was that he wasn't much of a pass-catcher out of the backfield (with only 37 receptions in three seasons) and that at 5-foot-8 and less than 200 pounds at the time, he wouldn't be durable enough to be an every-down back in the NFL.

Rice, who turned 26 on Jan. 22, disproved those theories long ago. Rice ran for 1,143 yards in 2012 - his fourth consecutive 1,000-yard season - and he has hauled in more than 300 receptions over that span.

After leading the league in yards from scrimmage in 2011, the ebullient back was rewarded with a five-year, $40-million contract that ensured the bulk of his career would be spent with the Ravens, Rice's goal all along after being taken by Baltimore in the second round of the 2008 draft.

"Hopefully, I'll retire a Raven," Rice said after signing the deal.

That'd be just fine with his many fans in the region. He has some 420,000 followers on Twitter and his jersey is perhaps the most visible on Sundays at M&T Bank Stadium and in workplaces on Purple Fridays around the state.

His backstory is well known.

Born in New Rochelle, N.Y., Rice had to begin dealing with adversity when his father was killed in a drive-by shooting when Rice was 1. He and his three siblings were raised by his mother, a special education teacher. Rice endured more tragedy when a close cousin was killed by a drunk driver when Rice was in middle school.

Despite a standout high school career, Rice was just a three-star recruit and attended Rutgers, not exactly a football power when he went there. But he helped bring the program to prominence by rushing for a school record 4,926 yards in three seasons.

The Ravens were impressed by Rice the moment he stepped onto their Owings Mills practice field.

"I just think he's our kind of guy," Harbaugh said after Rice's first minicamp. "That's high character, he's tough, rough, loves to play football. ... He's from a great family, and he's not just a one-play playmaker. He's a durable playmaker."

Added Willis McGahee, the team's feature back at the time: "That kid can flat-out play. Man, he's quick."

Rice spent just one year as McGahee's understudy, giving a glimpse of what was to come with a 156-yard rushing performance against Cleveland in Week 9 when McGahee was injured.

In 2009, Rice averaged 5.3 yards per carry and made the Pro Bowl in his first season as a starter. He went 83 yards for a touchdown on the Ravens' first play from scrimmage in their playoff win at New England that season.

He showed his durability by rushing a career-high 307 times in 2010, then set a career mark with 1,364 rushing yards in 2011.

This marked his fourth consecutive season of at least 60 receptions. While he has rushed for more than 5,000 yards - second to Jamal Lewis in Ravens history - he knows it is his ability to catch passes, and make something happen, that sets him apart.

His numbers were down a bit this season. His rushing yards and receptions (61) were his lowest totals since his rookie year. The Ravens began using bigger back Bernard Pierce to spell Rice more and more over the latter portion of the regular season.

None of the numbers matters nearly as much as winning to Rice.

"Stats and all the other good stuff, you could throw all that aside, because one thing about our group ... we are very unselfish," he said. "It doesn't matter who is getting the job done as long as we are getting the job done when we go out and execute."

And now Rice and the Ravens have reached the pinnacle. They face the San Francisco 49ers on Feb. 3 in Super Bowl XLVII. The always-smiling Rice could barely contain himself in the days before the team left for New Orleans.

"I'm not going to shy around and say this isn't the best feeling of my life," Rice said. "I have been down to a few Super Bowl appearances, but I told myself I'm never going to one unless I"m playing it. This is the one that I finally get to say 'I'm playing in it.'"

And Rice's spectacular catch-and-run Nov. 25 in San Diego is as big a reason as any why he and the Ravens have a chance to raise the Lombardi Trophy.

"You won't see too many plays like that," Ravens receiver Torrey Smith told reporters that day. "He was the perfect guy for it."

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