OWINGS MILLS — In an instant, he was gone.
Ray Rice had disappeared from within striking distance of the New England Patriots’ defense.
The swift running back bolted through a gaping hole right up the middle.
And the Baltimore Ravens’ Pro Bowl runner dashed past the line of scrimmage, accelerating into the secondary and eluding the grasp of diving safety Brandon Meriweather.
It was a classic moment for Rice in a burgeoning career.
The 83-yard touchdown jaunt on the first play from scrimmage provided the initial spark for the Ravens’ 33-14 barn-blazing victory over the Patriots in an AFC wild-card game two years ago at Gillette Stadium. Rice rumbled for 159 yards and two touchdowns, embarrassing a proud defense.
“If you want to ask me if that was my finest moment in my NFL career, yes it was,” Rice said. “Obviously, stats matter, but when you can do something that special in a playoff game in another team’s stadium, that was huge. And that’s something that I’ll cherish for the rest of my life. Obviously, we didn’t go on and win the Big Dance, but playoffs, it separates everybody.”
“There’s a reason why there’s only four teams, and there’s only one true champion at the end of the year. But when you can do something special in the playoffs, it’s definitely remembered. And that’s something that I’ll definitely take with me for the rest of my life.”
Now, the Ravens (13-4) are hoping to replicate how Rice ran roughshod over the Patriots (14-3) as they square off again during Sunday’s AFC championship game in Foxborough.
The Ravens trampled the Patriots for 234 rushing yards two years ago.
In order to move the chains, eat up clock and keep Patriots star quarterback Tom Brady on the bench, the Ravens will probably need another strong performance from Rice to win their second game over New England after winning just one of the first seven meetings in the all-time series.
What the Ravens don’t want is having Reed standing idly by on the sideline while Brady shreds the defense with his strong right arm.
Brady passed for 5,235 yards and 39 touchdowns during the regular season and tossed six more scoring strikes during the Patriots’ 45-10 AFC divisional playoff win over the Denver Broncos.
“In order to keep Tom Brady off the field, we have to simply execute at a high level,” Rice said. “We have to play championship football.”
It would behoove the Ravens for Rice simply to perform the way he did during the regular season when he rushed for a career-high 1,364 yards and 12 touchdowns while catching 76 passes for 704 yards and three touchdowns.
Rice led the NFL with 2,068 total yards from scrimmage
And Rice has a strong track record in the playoffs, rushing for 377 yards and three touchdowns in his seven previous postseason games.
“Ray’s an excellent young running back,” former Kansas City Chiefs Pro Bowl running back Priest Holmes told 24×7 in a telephone interview. “Ray has a unique quality to play big as a smaller-statured back. He runs with a very low pad level and is very difficult to tackle. He bounces off you, spins around, keeps his balance with that low center of gravity.”
“He’s a football player, very competitive, wants to excel, wants the opportunity to take his team to a Super Bowl. He’ll be just fine because one thing I noticed: the more you give Ray Rice the ball, the more you involve him, the stronger he gets. If they keep that in mind and allow him to continue to be himself and get him the touches he needs, they’re going to do big things.”
Massive Patriots nose guard Vince Wilfork knows very well about the power and explosiveness that Rice has packed into his 5-foot-8, 212-pound frame.
Wilfork went in the wrong direction on Rice’s huge touchdown run in the playoffs, turning a big opening into an even larger one once his 6-2, 325-pound body vacated the area.
“He’s tough to bring down,” Wilfork told New England reporters. “I mean, his lower body is probably like my lower body, with big thighs and he’s very strong. Hard runner, low center of gravity, can catch well and can block. When you can put those three things in a running back, you’ve got a complete running back and he’s been doing it ever since he’s been in the league.”
“Tough, tough guy to bring down, very, very physical runner. To be that small, you wouldn’t expect him to be that tough of a runner. He’s probably one of the toughest guys to bring down in this league because he always keeps those wheels spinning.”
Rice gained only 60 yards on 21 carries during the Ravens’ 20-13 win over the Houston Texans, but that was against the second-ranked defense in the league.
The Patriots are only 17th in the league in run defense, surrendering 117.1 yards on the ground per contest.
The Patriots know what’s coming: a steady diet of Rice.
And the second-seeded Ravens are counting on Rice boosting their prospects of pulling off an upset against the top-seeded Patriots.
“We don’t do a ton of things to be real explosive and in the top of the league statistically,” quarterback Joe Flacco said. “But we have the ability to be a really good offense.”
In order for Rice to break free, the Ravens’ offensive line and All-Pro fullback Vonta Leach will concentrate on clearing out Wilfork and linebacker Jerod Mayo.
“We’ve got to get the guys moving a little bit,” Leach said. “They’re big in the inside. We got to get them running a little bit. They’re a stout defense. We’ll have our work cut out for us.”
It all starts with Rice, though.
The Ravens are 13-0 this season when Rice gets at least 20 touches. In all four of their losses, he was barely involved.
“Vince is a big, formidable guy,” Pro Bowl offensive guard Marshal Yanda said. “He clogs things up. We need to be physical, get after them and get to the second level and let Ray do his thing.”
As far as Rice is concerned, he’ll deliver the win as long as he gets the football.
That’s exactly what he expects to happen Sunday in potentially wintry weather in Foxborough.
“I know I’ll be a major part in this game plan,” Rice said. “Sometimes the amount of carries over the amount of touches I get is overlooked. I think if I touch the ball 20-25 times, it’s a fair chance.”