Ray Rice's first down doesn't stand alone in Ravens lore

Ravens fans are still atwitter about Ray Rice's 30-yard mad dash for that game-saving first down Sunday in San Diego, and why not?

It brought the Ravens back from the dead. It put them in position to eliminate the Pittsburgh Steelers from AFC North title consideration this weekend and clinch that title with a victory and a Cincinnati Bengals loss to the Chargers.

It was the kind of play that eventually gets a nickname and lends itself to the sort of hyperbole that defines this era of professional sports. Not exactly the "Immaculate Reception," mind you, but certainly one of those moments that will live long in the hearts of the Raven faithful.

"It's going to go down in history," said coach John Harbaugh. "It was just a remarkable play. I said [Sunday] night that it was the greatest play I've ever seen or been a part of."

So, the hyperbole isn't limited to overheated fans. Even the players and coaches are helping to forge the legend of Rice's amazing run, but now that the dust has settled and the focus has shifted to the Steelers, it's time to put the thing in a more realistic perspective.

Of course, it was a wonderful, uplifting moment that could have a very positive impact on the Ravens' quest for one of the top playoff seeds, but the notion that it might be the greatest play in the history of the Ravens franchise is more a product of emotion and proximity than objective memory.

There's no question that it will go down as one of the most improbable plays in Ravens history. The odds against Rice squeezing 30 yards out of that check-down pass from Joe Flacco had to be at least 100-1. The top competitor for that distinction might be Shannon Sharpe's 96-yard wind sprint in the 2001 AFC title game against the Raiders that helped propel the Ravens into the Super Bowl.

When you throw around the term "greatest," however, it implies much more than just improbability, athletic achievement or entertainment value. The historic greatness of a single football play is — more than anything else — dependent on its significance. Franco Harris' "Immaculate" touchdown would have just been a quirky football highlight if it had not given the Steelers their first-ever playoff victory and launched one of the great pro football dynasties. Instead, it is considered by many to be the most memorable play in the history of the NFL.

Rice's desperate first-down dash may increase in significance if the victory over the Chargers ends up being vital to the Ravens securing home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, but it came at a time when they hold a big lead in the AFC North and would not have been devastated by a loss to a non-divisional opponent three time zones from home.

The case can be made that it wasn't even the team's greatest play in the past 13 months. That honor could just as easily go to the dramatic game-winning pass from Flacco to Torrey Smith with eight seconds left in last November's huge victory over the Steelers at Heinz Field.

That touchdown capped a late drive that pulled the Ravens out from under the thumb of Ben Roethlisberger and established once and for all in front of a national television audience that Flacco is a big-game quarterback. He would prove that again in the AFC title game against the Patriots, only to be denied his first Super Bowl because of one of the worst plays in Ravens history — the infamous touchdown drop by Lee Evans.

The case can also be made that Sunday's first-down save wasn't even Rice's greatest play ever. That might have been the 83-yard touchdown run he broke off on the first play from scrimmage in the Ravens' big playoff victory over the Patriots three years ago.

Though the Ravens have only been in Baltimore since the mid-1990s, there have been a lot of big games and a lot of terrific moments, several of them during the amazing 2000 season that ended with Art Modell holding up the Lombardi Trophy after the Ravens trounced the New York Giants in their only Super Bowl.

The short Trent Dilfer pass that Sharpe turned into a 96-yard touchdown was a key play in the AFC title win over the Raiders in Oakland — a game that also featured one of the most significant defensive plays in team history. Tony Siragusa's brutal hit on Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon knocked the wind out of the Oakland offense and allowed the Ravens to cruise into the Super Bowl with a 16-3 victory.

The defensive highlight reel is probably longer than the offensive one, starting with the jarring hit that Ray Lewis put on Eddie George in 2000 while the Ravens were establishing their long-standing reputation as the league's most bruising defense. That might have been the greatest single play of Lewis' great career, but fans are probably more familiar with his game-saving tackle of Chargers running back Darren Sproles in 2009, since it was replayed several times in the broadcast of Sunday's game.

It's also hard to forget Ed Reed's record 108-yard interception return against the Eagles in 2008 and Chris McAllister's record-setting 107-yard return of a missed field goal on Monday Night Football in 2002.

None of this is meant to take anything away from Rice, who is well on his way to being a member of the Ravens Ring of Honor, and who already is one of the most exciting and accomplished players in team history.

He's just in some very good company.

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.

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