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Rice is the driving force behind the Ravens' offense

Here's the trouble with performing as well as Ray Rice routinely does for the Baltimore Ravens: You're expected to do so all the time.

That's what your fans expect. Ditto for your teammates.

Soon after the Ravens' wild-card humiliation of the New England Patriots, someone asked linebacker Jarret Johnson what his team needed to do to win Saturday's divisional-round clash with the Indianapolis Colts. Johnson didn't talk about duplicating the defensive beatdown he helped the Ravens administer on Tom Brady and the rest of the Pats. He pointed to Rice starting things off with a run similar to that amazing, 83-yard scoring sprint to open the New England game.

"I think we have to jump on them quick," Johnson said. "I think the main thing with Indy is the battle to control the clock; they make it 'their' ballgame. If you want to beat them, you have to control the clock. You have to run the ball."

In other words, Rice has to be every bit as magical as he has been throughout the first Pro Bowl season of his two-year career.

It's no exaggeration to say that Rice is the main reason the Ravens continue to have a pulse in the playoffs. Almost to a man, Baltimore players and coaches gushed about his performance against the Patriots (159 yards on 22 carries, which comes to an average of 7.2 yards per rush, and two touchdowns). And they continued to marvel over that first play from scrimmage, noting that it was more than a spectacular individual display of elusiveness and raw speed. As another Ravens running back, Willis McGahee noted, it "just opened everything up."

"When you get that first run, it's hard to shy away from running the ball," Rice said. "You want to stick with it for a little while until they stop it."

The Pats never did stop it. That's why the Ravens ran 52 times for 234 yards and Joe Flacco threw a mere 10 passes for 34 yards, and Baltimore still wound up with 33 points.

But Rice doesn't necessarily believe such a formula will work at Indianapolis, despite the fact the Colts have the 24th-ranked run defense in the NFL.

"We have to pick and choose our spots against the Colts," he said. "We ran the ball well this week, (but) I'm sure we will have to run and pass and do everything well next week."

That's a reasonable expectation when the opponent is a No. 1 seed and has Peyton Manning, who just won his fourth league MVP award, under center. The Ravens might very well find themselves in a shootout.

That, too, could easily result in Rice being every bit the focal point of their offense as he was against the Patriots. After all, he did have a staggering 78 catches for 702 yards in the regular season, to go along with 1,339 rushing yards. Granted, Rice only caught one pass against New England, but that hardly indicated anything more than the Ravens' physically punishing, grind-it-out game plan was working too well for Flacco to do a whole lot besides hand off.

The Ravens love making extensive use of the 5-foot-8 Rice in their passing game. Making the most of his low center of gravity with tremendous change-of-direction skills, he can make more happen with the ball in his hands than any of their wide receivers. He also does a much better job of getting open. Trying to cover Rice one-on-one with a safety or a linebacker almost always results in a mismatch.

"You have to take your hat off to that young kid," Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said of Rice's output against New England. "He's played like that all year."

Which is why Lewis and everyone else connected with the Ravens is looking for the same thing against the Colts.

Observation points

» Many critics wondered if the Minnesota Vikings had made a huge blunder by saying goodbye to veteran center Matt Birk and replacing him with John Sullivan, who had never started in the NFL before this year. Birk is one of the league's very best at the position and has continued to enjoy success anchoring the line of another playoff team, the Ravens.

But to the surprise of many NFL observers, Sullivan has more than held his own. The Vikings' running game wasn't as consistently dominant as it was before this season, but it was effective enough to help the team win the NFC North and capture a No. 2 playoff seed. With Brett Favre's big-play passing ability, the Vikings morphed into more of a quick-striking, high-scoring attack. And Sullivan's protection had quite a bit to do with that.

"I don't think we took a back step like a lot of people would have thought (without Birk)," Vikings coach Brad Childress told the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune.

» I've heard more than a few coaches around the league voice criticism about Rex Ryan's tough-talking style. Words like "immature" have been thrown around. So has the theory that the first-year coach of the New York Jets is a bad example for his players to follow.

Some of that talk ramped up last week after Ryan, in response to the perception that the Jets backed into the playoffs, openly touted his team's chances of reaching and winning Super Bowl XLIV. Sure enough, some of his players are, in fact, expressing the same brashness. This is what center Damien Woody told reporters before the Jets' impressive wild-card win at Cincinnati: "We're not satisfied with just getting to the tournament and bowing out. We feel like we're going to go all the way. That's just our mind-set."

The Jets will need much more than bold words to knock off the Chargers in Sunday's divisional-round game at San Diego. But as repulsive as Ryan's in-your-face leadership might be to some, you can't argue with the results … so far.

» It's a stretch to find many NFL teams with one fullback who has a prominent role in the offense. The San Diego Chargers have two: Mike Tolbert and Jacob Hester.

At 5-foot-9 and 243 pounds, Tolbert has more of a prototypical fullback physique. He will get carries late in games that the Chargers are leading in order to burn the clock. At 5-11 and 233 pounds, Hester looks more like a running back, but he, too, is utilized in the traditional fullback role. Both also contribute to special teams.

If the Chargers' highly productive offense -- which has contributed to 11 consecutive victories -- ends up helping them get to the Super Bowl, don't be surprised if more teams start bulking up on what once was recently viewed as a dying position in the league.

» Bad news for the Ravens' offense: Colts standout linebacker Clint Session is back at practice after two-and-a-half weeks of resting a sore knee. Such is one of the major benefits of being on a team that clinches a No. 1 playoff seed with three weeks left in the regular season.

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undefeated New Orleans in Week 15 may have set it on the course for a potential Super Bowl championship this season, writes Michael Lombardi. **More ...**

Divisional-round rankings

  1. Dallas: The Cowboys are strong enough in every phase -- yes, that includes coaching -- to win it all.
  1. San Diego: With plenty of playmakers on both sides of the ball, the Chargers are built to go the distance.
  1. Indianapolis: Beating the Ravens shouldn't be a problem. A matchup with San Diego in the AFC Championship Game could be.
  1. New Orleans: It's a good thing the Saints' defense has had a long rest. A track meet with the Cardinals awaits.
  1. Arizona: The Cardinals can plan on another wild and crazy game at the Superdome.
  1. Minnesota: As shaky as the Vikings have been in recent weeks, it's hard to see them being ready for all that the Cowboys have going for them.
  1. N.Y. Jets: With all due respect to Rex Ryan's handicapping skills, there's no way to call his Jets a favorite vs. the Chargers while keeping a straight face.
  1. Baltimore: Despite the Ravens' success vs. New England and their strong rushing attack, it's hard to see this team surviving another game with QB Joe Flacco sinking deeper into a slump.
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