Ray Rice's jaw-dropping conversion on fourth-and-29 was the signature play of the season for the first-place Ravens. It's also the play of the 2012 NFL season.
It had everything you want: difficulty, drama and determination. The play even has a name, according to Rice, "Hey diddle diddle, Ray Rice up the middle." OK, we'll have to work on that one.
There have been a lot of great plays in the NFL this season. But name another where a player takes the ball -- as well as the game -- in his hands and eludes nearly every one on defense to keep his team alive.
Let's talk difficulty. Excluding first down gained on penalties, this was the longest fourth-down conversion in the NFL since 2001, when Rob Johnson of the Bills threw a 40-yard touchdown pass to Peerless Price on a 4th-and-34 play (long after the Colts had wrapped up a victory), according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Over the last 25 years, the only other fourth-down conversion as long as Baltimore’s was a 29-yard fourth-quarter touchdown pass from Neil O’Donnell to Keyshawn Johnson to draw the Jets within a touchdown of the Dolphins in an eventual 36–27 loss at Miami (1996).
Let's talk drama. Down by three points late in the fourth quarter, the Ravens were down to a last-gasp shot after Joe Flacco was sacked on third-and-20. They had to get from their own 37-yard line to the Chargers' 34. The play would weigh heavily in shaping the AFC North for the final month of the regular season. A win would extend the Ravens' lead in the division to three games. A loss would keep the Steelers and Bengals within striking distance with five weeks remaining.
Let's talk determination. After catching the dump-off pass one yard pass the line of scrimmage, Rice initially had a 20-yard cushion in front of him (Chargers defenders dropped deep because the Ravens sent four receivers straight downfield). As the Chargers converged at the Chargers' 47, Rice cut to his left to elude two lunging tacklers and run through Marcus Gilchrist's arm tackle. He then received a jarring block from Anquan Boldin on safety Eric Weddle at the San Diego 38 before diving straight through two tacklers for the first down.
“It was just total will,” Rice said. “I guess they figured if you drop it down to the guy then they can rally and make the tackle and game over. I guess when you put me in the equation it’s not that easy.”
The Ravens have gone from winning ugly to winning in amazing ways.
Said coach John Harbaugh: “There’s something going on with this football team that is just really, really special and miraculous."