Ravens 24, Bengals 16

1. No matter what happens in the playoffs, Ray Rice deserves better than a franchise tag in 2012. It's time to figure out a way to pay the man. Football is always going to be the ultimate team sport, but Rice was the catalyst to this entire 12-4 season. He should be the face of the franchise going forward, and he should be paid appropriately. Unless you're a both a pessimist and a contrarian, there is a lot to be proud of right now if you're a Ravens fan. Sure, this team hasn't always looked pretty this year. They've done some stuff the hard way. And there are still lingering issues that may ultimately doom them in the playoffs. But locking up the No. 2 seed, earning a home playoff game, and sweeping the toughest division in football, is a tremendous accomplishment. Just for a moment, take a second to appreciate what a grueling march this season was, and tip your cap to acknowledge where the Ravens ultimately ended up. It seemed like a lot of factors were working against Baltimore this week. A lot of people looked at this matchup and saw a young and hungry team (Bengals) playing host to an old and injury-plagued team that has had a ton of trouble winning on the road this year (Ravens). I admit I was one of them who viewed the game that way. My head kept telling me the Bengals were going to win this game. But I still couldn't bring myself to pick the Bengals to win. And the reason for that was Ray Rice. This season, and this game in particular, should serve as conclusive proof that Rice is one of the NFL's best players, and it would be a little insulting to make him play another season under a 1-year-deal after he's proven himself repeatedly. (He led the NFL in yards from scrimmage this year with 2,068.) We talk about Joe Flacco a lot in this space. We debate whether or not he's progressing, we argue over where he fits in the NFL quarterbacking hierarchy, and that's always a worthy debate. Because you can't win an NFL championship in this era of wide-open football without a decent quarterback. You have to have some balance. This is not Trent Dilfer's NFL anymore. But we don't talk enough about Rice because there really isn't much to argue about. He's one of the five best running backs in football. Period. The Ravens needed him to have a big game more than ever against the Bengals, and I'd argue he had maybe the best game of his career. In terms of performing under pressure, it's hard to beat 24 carries for 191 yards and two touchdowns. He even finished off his two long touchdown runs so Baltimore didn't even have to bother with its usual hiccups in the red zone. If the Ravens hadn't won this game, I would surmise their chances of getting to the Super Bowl would have decreased by about 75 percent. Rice put them on his back in big moments. He got some great blocking from Vonta Leach, Marshal Yanda, Ben Grubbs and Matt Birk, but he made those runs possible with his vision, his balance and his initial burst. There seems to be a train of thought these days that running backs are disposable commodities, and that it's foolish to offer them lucrative long-term deals. That's one reason why the assumption is the Ravens will franchise Rice next season. But here is what's actually foolish: Offering a 29-year-old running back a lucrative deal. Rice is only 24. (He'll turn 25 on Jan. 22, the day of the AFC Championship game.) He absolutely has five really good years ahead of him. What more, exactly, does he need to prove? He's been a feature back for three years and led the NFL in yards from scrimmage twice. This isn't Eddie George or Larry Johnson, guys who carried the ball more than 400 times in a season and absorbed a ton of big hits. This is a dynamic athlete who is also a quarterback's best friend in the passing game. But more than just his play, Rice is the rare professional athlete who really, truly understands that he's always representing the Baltimore Ravens every time he appears in public or opens his mouth. He's comfortable in the spotlight, and he's the kind of person you want in the spotlight. That should count for something, too. The Ravens are probably going to have to choose, down the road, who is going to be the odd man out between Rice, Flacco and Ben Grubbs. And that's a shame. But if they try to franchise Rice, he should absolutely hold out. All he needs to do is look at what happened to Adrian Peterson this year. You might only get one chance to feel financially secure. I know the salary cap complicates everything in the NFL, and these decisions are months into the future. For now, we should just take a moment to appreciate how exhilarating it was when Rice knifed through that hole in the fourth quarter on 3rd-and-1, made the free safety miss, and scampered for a 51-yard touchdown. Hard to put a price tag on a play like that.
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