Sunday Preview

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – With his cleats darting quickly and propelling him into a pile of bodies, Ray Rice was hidden for an instant. The Baltimore Ravens' elusive Pro Bowl running back accelerated out of the tiniest crease last January, discovering daylight where lumbering runners would be eclipsed in the darkness of being gang-tackled

Dashing upfield, Rice ran away from all pursuit for an 83-yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage that represented the signature moment of the Ravens' 33-14 dismantling of the New England Patriots in an AFC wild-card playoff game.

As the Ravens (4-1) square off with the Patriots (3-1) Sunday in a pivotal AFC showdown at Gillette Stadium, the elusiveness of Rice figures to be a major factor.

How can the Patriots' defense corral a muscle-packed, diminutive back that's so hard to track down and find behind a beefy offensive line? "Nobody can see him, first and foremost," Ravens All-Pro middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. "And that's why I think if you go over the history of those little backs, they make cuts and things that a lot of people can't make. You can go back all the way to Joe Morris' days and come up to Barry Sanders and all those guys. "I just think their shiftiness of being so low to the ground to make those cuts and make those plants that a lot of big backs can't make because their stride is much bigger. And those little backs' stride is not that big. Their feet are always up under them, and they can make those right and out direct cuts and get upfield." The Patriots were embarrassed by how the Ravens routed them last winter.

Accustomed to owning opponents at home, the Patriots were mauled by a more physical, more intense Ravens squad.

"The game sticks with all of us," taciturn Patriots coach Bill Belichick acknowledged. "It's a new season, new game. We'll see how this one comes out." The Ravens rushed for 234 yards in that playoff rout, the most the Patriots have allowed in a playoff game since a 1964 game against the San Diego Chargers. And quarterback Tom Brady was forced into four turnovers on three interceptions and one fumble. "We got manhandled by a damn good team," Brady said. "And everything we said we wanted to do, we didn't do. Penalties, turnovers, we couldn't convert on third down, couldn't control the tempo of the game.

"I have a lot of respect for these guys. They play really hard. They're very well coached. They have a very physical front, a very emotional team. Once they get fired up, it's tough to calm them down." It's practically impossible to ignore how this game shapes up in terms of intangibles. It's a pure grudge match for the Patriots, and the Ravens know it. "Anytime you play a playoff game at home and you lose, that's going to leave a sour taste in your mouth," linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "I'm sure when they saw us on their schedule, they saw red. And they're going to come at us.

"But we expect nothing less, especially from the New England Patriots. So, we definitely look forward to that opportunity. If there's going to be a fight at 1 o'clock, we'll see them there." In order to avoid a similar outcome, the Patriots will have to figure out a way to contain Rice. They haven't been able to do so previously, allowing a pair of 100-yard games to Rice as he rushed for a total of 262 yards against New England last season.

So far this year, the Patriots and their 20th-ranked run defense are giving up 113 yards per contest. With the exception of bulky nose guard Vince Wilfork and inside linebacker Jerod Mayo, there are no standouts in the Patriots' front seven.

And the memory of how Rice transformed a routine play into a home run hasn't vanished from the Patriots' minds.

It's a vivid reminder of how dangerous the former Rutgers star can be when he finds a hole to his liking.

"I can't remember what went wrong there, but I'll tell you what: It was a crease that he hit," Wilfork said in a conference call with Baltimore reporters. "We played that play 100 times before. It's just a crease he hit, and then he was out of the gates. We'll learn from the past. This year is this year, and that's the way we want to keep it."

It's hard to blame Wilfork for wanting to discard last season, but it's hard to shrug off Rice's multi-dimensional capabilities.

He's coming off his first 100-yard game of the season, running roughshod over the Denver Broncos' defense for a season-high 133 yards and two touchdowns.

And Rice rushed for 1,339 yards last season and caught 78 passes for 702 yards. He was one of two NFL players to exceed 2,000 yards from scrimmage, joining Tennessee Titans speedster Chris Johnson.

"He does everything in the backfield that a back can do," Wilfork said. "A lot of times you have a back that's one dimensional, either he can run or catch. This guy, he can do it all. He's a tough runner.

"They're tough, they're physical and they want to pound the rock. We know coming into this game that we're pretty sure they're going to do what they do and that's be physical, play fast, be aggressive. If you've been so successful, why change it now? He's probably one of the better running backs around the league right now."

Now that he's feeling better after bruising his knee against the Cleveland Browns, the Ravens are hoping that Rice is primed for a succession of big games.

And Rice is certain that the Patriots will be gunning for him, eager to get the bad taste out of their mouths after being roughed up last season. "I think it has to be in the back of their head," Rice said. "Obviously because what we did last year was uncommon for that kind of team. We went up there, we dominated them. We were hungry.

"We still are hungry because the ultimate goal is to win a Super Bowl and we have yet to do that. We've won one in the past, they've won many."

After road victories over the New York Jets and the Pittsburgh Steelers, this game shapes up as a chance for the Ravens to cement their status as the team to beat in the AFC. Rice knows what's at stake, and he can't wait for another chance to compete against a tradition-rich organization with a proud Super Bowl pedigree. A third consecutive 100-yard game against New England and another victory would be truly meaningful.

"We don't want to single out the Patriots, but the success that they've had you can't forget that," Rice said. "They have a long-term history of success. They've won Super Bowls, and I think we're an organization on our way to winning multiple Super Bowls. So, obviously, this kind of game you don't really have to ramp yourself up for."

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