Key matchup: Rice vs. outside linebackers

Despite bad numbers this year from Ravens running back Ray Rice, the Vikings insist he is still a dangerous weapon and a critical one to the Baltimore offense.

The Vikings have played the role of spoiler the last couple of weeks, playing to an overtime tie with Green Bay that crippled the Packers' post-season chances and may have ended Chicago's chances of winning the NFC North with a win over the Bears that dropped them a game behind Detroit – which has all the tie-breaker advantages.

As the Vikings head into Baltimore to meet the Ravens Sunday, they have a chance to stick a dagger in their playoff hopes. Perhaps the most critical battle will be between Baltimore running back Ray Rice and Vikings linebackers Chad Greenway and Erin Henderson, making it this week's key matchup.

The lack of production from the Ravens running game has been an unexpected problem all season long. In his first five seasons, Rice averaged better than 4.5 yards a carry. In his first four full seasons as a starter, Rice has carried the ball 1,009 times for 5,066 yards and 33 touchdowns, while catching 278 passes for 2,440 yards and six more TDs. Those numbers equated to season averages of 252-1,267-8 as a rusher and 70-610-2 as receiver. Rice came to define the dual-purpose running back and few have been better over a handful of years.

It has been that production over the previous four years that has made his 2013 season so stunningly bad. Through 12 games (he missed one game due to injury), Rice has carried the ball 168 times for just 482 yards. While still on pace to have 230 rushing attempts, he has just 482 yards on the ground – a brutal 2.9-yard average – and has just one game in which he has a carry of more than 14 yards. He has been just as bottled up in the passing game. He is second on the team with 43 receptions, but has just 213 yards – a bleak 5-yard average – and has just two receptions of 15 yards or more.

Rice is still the centerpiece of the Ravens offense, but teams have figured out how to keep him in check, but that doesn't mean that Greenway or Henderson will be getting cocky about their chances.

"The numbers may not be showing it, but Ray Rice is a dangerous player capable of making a big play at any time," Greenway said. "I don't think Baltimore would have won the Super Bowl last year without him because he was that important to their team."

Henderson echoed that sentiment, saying the Vikings have spent a lot of preparation time looking at ways to contain Rice.

"He's a big-play type of guy – that's been his history," Henderson said. "He can take a little swing pass or check-down pass and take it to the house any time he touches the ball. I haven't looked at his statistics, but all I know is that he is a dangerous player when he gets the ball in his hands."

For a player who has been a Pro Bowl regular because of his skills as both a runner and receiver, to date, Rice has just two games with more than 45 rushing yards and his season high for receiving yards in a game has been 38. He has been uncharacteristically contained on a regular basis and, if the Vikings are going to contain Rice, they will need to do what several other teams have successfully navigated – keeping Rice under wraps.

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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