CINCINNATI -- The Baltimore Ravens get a well-deserved rest because of the tireless running of Ray Rice. They get to stay home for the first round of the playoffs because he carried the offense at wind-swept day at Paul Brown Stadium. They celebrated their first division championship in five years because Rice played like a champion.
When the Ravens put on their AFC North champion t-shirts, I wondered whether it was Rice who made them. It seems like he does everything for Baltimore these days.
Need a jolt to begin the game? Rice bolted 70 yards to the end zone on the fourth play from scrimmage. Need a knockout punch? Rice raced 51 yards for the score off a turnover with less than six minutes left in the fourth quarter.
To measure the importance of Rice in the 24-16 victory over the Bengals, just look at the final total yards: Rice 199, rest of the Ravens 148.
The stats say it. The players even acknowledge it. The Ravens' Super Bowl run relies on their smallest player by stature but their biggest one in terms of playmaking ability.
"That's who we are as an offense," linebacker Ray Lewis said. "When we play that type of game, the result is 12 wins and a first-round bye. I take my hat off to that guy. I've watched that boy since college, and to see him grow now in his fourth year is a special, special thing."
The motto of the Ravens' postseason has to be: "Run, Ray, run." Over the past two seasons (including playoffs), the Ravens are 20-1 (.952) when Rice gets at least 20 touches. They are 5-8 (.385) when he doesn't. This doesn't mean that Baltimore has to give the ball to Rice on the first 20 plays of the game. What this shows is that Rice has to be the centerpiece of the attack.
The brilliance of Rice is how he erases the deficiencies of the offense. When he is breaking long runs, no one is questioning Joe Flacco's inconsistency (he threw for 6 yards in the third quarter) or the lack of weapons in the passing game (no wide receiver had more than 33 yards receiving and Lee Evans had a deep pass bounce off his hands).
Baltimore has leaned on Rice more and more as the weather has turned bad and made throwing the ball more difficult. The game plan turned more toward Rice today as wind gusts hit 35 miles per hour.
In the final seven regular season games -- when the Ravens have gone 6-1 -- Rice has produced 805 yards rushing and 234 yards receiving. That's an average of 148.4 total yards per game.
"I've always been a big Ray Rice and offensive line fan," linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "I strongly believe in our running game. When they're good, we're great."
What many will remember most about Rice's game today is his speed. It was his ability to outrun the Bengals to the end zone.
But the most impressive part of his game was where he ran the ball. Rice did most of his damage in between the tackles. He followed his blocks, broke arm tackles and faked out defenders.
For Rice, 92 percent of his yards (175 of 191) came in between the tackles, according to ESPN Stats & Information. It was basically a repeat of the previous meeting between the teams. In Week 11, Rice gained 88 percent of his yards (91 of 104) up the gut of the defense.
"We have to play better," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "This is what happens when guys don't take care of responsibility and do their job right."
Rice had a clear lane for his first big run because of injured right guard Marshal Yanda. Listed as doubtful with rib and thigh injuries, Yanda played and got to the second level to block Bengals middle linebacker Rey Maualuga. There was no one between Rice and the end zone when the Bengals safety, who was playing cover one, followed a fake reverse to Torrey Smith.
"You see him after [last week's] game and you see him on Monday and you're like, 'We might as well prepare without Yanda,'" Rice said. "But then you're out there Friday and you know he's in pain but he doesn't complain. He's good to go."
Rice's second touchdown came down to his own determination. The Bengals had closed a two-touchdown halftime deficit to 17-13 in the fourth quarter and were driving in Ravens' territory. Baltimore had lost the momentum and was about to lose the game. A loss would've made the Ravens the No. 5 seed and put them on the road in the first round of the playoffs.
Then, the two players who have stepped up all season did it again. Suggs punched the ball out of tight end Jermaine Gresham's grasp, and Rice converted that turnover into a touchdown three plays later. He followed the lead block of fullback Vonta Leach on Maualuga and darted to the end zone.
"When a defense does something great like that, you want to pay them guys back as an offense and you want to pay them back with a touchdown," Rice said. "We had guys coming over, saying, 'Just get us three.' We said, 'We want to give you seven.'"
Rice is scheduled to become a free agent at the end of the season. If he does lead the Ravens to a Super Bowl, it will be time for the team to pay him back.