Baltimore running back Ray Rice had been injured and ignored so far this season. While fantasy football owners have been disappointed, the Ravens (4-1) shrugged it off because they were winning and knew eventually they would turn back to their Pro Bowl back.
Sunday was that type of game, as Rice rushed for a season-high 133 yards and two touchdowns in a 31-17 victory over the Denver Broncos. It was the first 100-yard game of the season for Rice, who was heavily involved in the game plan and had his number called 27 times after getting just 23 carries in the previous two games.
Rice, a three-year veteran, finally had a chance to put the Ravens on his back and it produced the easiest victory of the season for Baltimore. It's no coincidence Baltimore put up a season-best 415 yards on offense with Rice as the lynchpin.
"That's trust," Rice said. "I couldn't say that [offensive coordinator Cam Cameron] would do that my rookie year."
Baltimore added former Pro Bowl receivers Anquan Boldin and T.J. Houshmandzadeh to the passing game in the offseason, but the Ravens aren't at their best offensively unless Rice is healthy and productive. With a quick burst, several nice cuts and tough runs, Rice proved he's back to 100 percent after suffering a knee bruise in Week 3. Although Rice nearly broke a couple big runs, his longest rush was for 18 yards as he grinded out carries against the Broncos, who held Tennessee Titans Pro Bowl tailback Chris Johnson to 53 yards in Week 4.
Ray Rice rushed 27 times and averaged 4.9 yards per carry.
When Rice gets going, everyone else's job becomes easier. Last week, for example, quarterback Joe Flacco had to throw a late touchdown to Houshmandzadeh to pull out a dramatic win over Pittsburgh Steelers. This week, with Rice as the focus, Flacco only needed to throw 25 passes.
Baltimore rushed for four touchdowns and improved to 10-0 all time when it runs for at least three scores. The Ravens rushed for 233 yards as Rice, Willis McGahee and Flacco each scored.
"It's important. We need to be able to run the ball," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "It's nice to know we can run the ball. That's a defense that's pretty much set up to stop the run in a lot of ways, and we did a good job of running on them anyway."
Rice credited his offensive line, which played its best game of the season. In addition to paving the way for Rice, Baltimore’s offensive line allowed just one sack, on the opening drive.
"I've never seen a group work harder," Rice said of his blockers up front. "The stats haven't shown the last few weeks, but today [it did]. If I was to give a game ball, I'd have to give it to them."
Baltimore, a preseason favorite by many to win the Super Bowl, is off to a great start, but this team could still play better. The Ravens had several blown plays in pass coverage. Denver quarterback Kyle Orton threw for 314 yards and touchdowns of 42 and 44 yards to receiver Brandon Lloyd. That will give the coaching staff something to criticize this week despite the relatively easy win.
But the talent is there for Baltimore to have a big year.
"We feel like we've got a pretty special team here, and we just got to continue to work hard to get better each week," Flacco said. "We can't stay the team we are ... We're showing a lot of promise and getting better week to week, and that's the mark of a championship team."