FOXBORO - Ray Rice led the NFL in 2011 in yards from scrimmage with 2,068 (1,364 on the ground). He carried the ball 291 times and caught it 76. So of the 5,419 yards Baltimore gained, he was responsible for 38 percent of them.
So, yeah, the Patriots want to keep tabs on Rice Sunday in the AFC Championship, New England's sixth appearance in that game in Bill Belichick's 12 seasons in New England.
On the first play from scrimmage in the 2009 playoffs against the Patriots, Rice ran virtually untouched for 83 yards and touchdown through the heart of the Patriots defense.
That play is still on their minds.
"2009, yeah it was unfortunate," Patriots linebacker Rob Ninkovich said Monday. "We didnt start that game off the way we wanted to on defense. A team that potent and tough, you cant give up a big run for a touchdown to start the game off like that. Obviously, thats something that we really need to focus on, is not letting up any big plays like that, especially to start the game off. The momentum they gained from that obviously just snowballed for the rest of the game and they were able to go out there and play well."
The next 59:45 of that game wasn't much fun for the Patriots, either, as they lost 33-14. So overpowering was the Ravens rushing attack that quarterback Joe Flacco only threw 10 times.
Finding Rice is sometimes half the battle. At 5-foot-8, he can duck behind linemen and runs like a field mouse. Except he's a strong field mouse and he runs through arm tackles.
"Hes a little bit different because hes a smaller, compact guy real strong," Ninkovich explained. "Kind of like a Maurice Jones-Drew guy: real strong at hitting the hole and is real fast, but also can catch the ball out of the backfield and make some plays in the passing game. Hes a target for them that really makes a lot of plays for them so you have to make sure that you account for him on the field at all times."
Rice was kept in check this past Sunday by the formidable Houston Texans defense. He ran for 60 yards on 21 carries.
The Patriots defense is not as stout as Houston's. And even if it were, it wouldn't lessen their concerns about him. "Hes different because hes just very explosive," said Ninkovich. "If you give him just a little bit, he can turn that into a real big play. You have to make sure you keep all the holes tight so he doesnt have something just to hit and go. Hes a challenge for us."
A challenge that, if the Patriots are able to limit, will go a long way toward putting them in the Super Bowl.