Patriots' No. 1 goal: Stop Ray Rice
If I can steal an idea from "South Park" for a moment, the usual defensive game plan for teams going up against the Ravens usually looks something like this:
Step 1: Stop Ray Rice.
Step 2: ????
Step 3: Victory!
OK, so maybe NFL teams actually can come up with a step two and pay attention to guys like Joe Flacco, Anquan Boldin, Torrey Smith and the Ravens' tight ends. But the truth is that every week, the Ravens run up against teams hellbent on stopping Baltimore's run game.
The Patriots know as well as anyone what can happen when a defense fails in that task. New England watched Rice bust loose for an 83-yard touchdown on the first play of the 2009 playoff game between the two teams, and they never figured out how to slow him down after that.
The last thing New England can afford to do is let history repeat itself.
"It all starts with that guy (Rice) and then goes on with the quarterback," Patriots DT Vince Wilfork said during a conference call Thursday. "The more he can do for them, the better they’ll be and the more success that they’ll have.
"I’m not saying they don’t have any other playmakers on that side, because they do … but it starts with him. If he (has) a good day, they’ll have a good day."
The numbers support that claim. The Ravens have won the last nine games in which Rice has topped 100 yards on the ground -- a streak that started with his 159-yard outburst against the Patriots in a wild-card round game.
"He’s a tough football player. He can block, he can catch the ball out of the backfield and, obviously, he can run the football," Wilfork said. "His size doesn’t matter because he has a big heart. Guys on that offense rally around him. We have to make sure we do a great job containing him, and I think we’ll be OK."
Rice's ability to slip out of the backfield and make plays in the passing game adds to his overall impact.
As Bill Belichick pointed out Wednesday, those dual-threat backs have given the Patriots trouble this season. He specifically mentioned Buffalo's C.J. Spiller and Miami's Reggie Bush as players the Patriots have struggled to defend -- Bush had two strong games against New England this season, while Spiller put up 100 total yards and a touchdown in Week 17.
"Guys like that can run the ball inside, can run the ball outside, can run with power, can take short plays and go for long yardage, can take wheel routes and close routes and routes out of the backfield and out-run the defense and get behind them," Belichick said. "He's a tough guy to matchup on and he does so many things that you try to stop one thing and you're vulnerable somewhere else.
"I don't think, obviously, any one person can stop a player of his caliber. It takes a great team effort to do that, whether it's running or covering or screen passes."
Stuffing Rice (and Ricky Williams, who will get some carries in relief) also would crank up the pressure on Flacco, who found himself responding Wednesday to some critical comments made by teammate Ed Reed on national radio.
Flacco has a 5-3 playoff record in his four seasons as the Ravens' quarterback, but questions persist about his ability to "win the big one," so to speak. Despite claiming at least one postseason victory in each of the past three seasons, Baltimore has yet to get to the Super Bowl.
Which team advances to this year's big game could depend heavily on what Rice is able to do Sunday.