Over the final stretch of the season, the Ravens relied heavily on sophomore standout Ray Rice and the legs of their running game.
Well, on the heels of a meteoric rushing performance against the New England Patriots in the first round of the playoffs, the Ravens' ground game finally lost its footing in its divisional showdown Saturday night.
And with their signature weapon neutralized, the Ravens' offense struggled as a whole.
Baltimore rushed for 87 total yards, third-fewest of the season. Pro Bowler Ray Rice ran 13 times for 67 yards and veteran Willis McGahee rushed two times for seven yards. Rice's longest run of 20 yards ended with a lost fumble.
"As well as they run the ball, to hold Ray Rice to under 100 yards is tremendous," Colts head coach Jim Caldwell said.
Offensive Coordinator Cam Cameron and the Ravens attempted to establish the run early against the Colts defense, which ranked No. 24 in the NFL over the regular season by allowing an average of 126.5 yards per game. Baltimore ran eight times on its first drive but netted just 27 yards, the longest coming on an 8-yard reverse by wide receiver Mark Clayton.
Quarterback Joe Flacco completed four of five passes for 55 yards on the opening drive, but that did little to soften up a speedy Colts defense that was putting extra manpower into stopping the run.
Cameron called Rice's number on the first play of each the Ravens' three remaining drives in the first half. Those plays netted 14 yards and Rice had one more rush for two yards. All three drives ended in three-and-outs.
The Ravens rushed for just 43 total yards in the first half. Rice had nearly double that on the Ravens' first play from scrimmage against the Patriots last week, a game in which the Ravens' runners piled up 234 rushing yards and four touchdowns.
By the time Rice got another crack at the Colts in the third quarter, Indianapolis was already ahead by two touchdowns and the Ravens were forced to pass the ball more often. The passing game, which didn't muster a touchdown in the Ravens' final three games, didn't prove very successful either as Flacco threw two interceptions in the second half.
"They know how to play what they do well," Flacco said of the Colts defense. "They are able to react quickly and defend quickly. That's what they say about this group of guys -- they play with speed and react to the ball."
This isn't the first time the Colts clamped down on the Ravens' rushers, particularly Rice. In their Week 11 meeting, Indianapolis held Baltimore to just 98 total rushing yards. Rice was limited to 71 yards on 20 attempts.
Indianapolis duplicated its strategy in the playoffs. Speedy linebacker Gary Brackett shadowed Rice for much of the game, which also aided in containing the Ravens' big-play, pass-catching threat. Rice hauled in a team-high nine catches, but turned them into 60 yards –well below his average of nine yards per catch.
"Same thing they did last game," Rice said. "They seemed like they had the same game plan. They moved around. Their defense is based on movement. They are a moving defense. Catch them in a move and some big plays happen. We have to score."
Rice's highest and lowest moment of the game came on the same play. With about 11 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, he burst up the middle for a 20-yard gain that would have put the Ravens in good position cut the Colts' lead to 10. Rice shed several tacklers and kept churning downfield.
But that determination allowed Colts defensive lineman Raheem Brock to catch up and blindside Rice. The ball was jarred from his grasp and the Colts' Clint Session fell on it, essentially sealing the Ravens' fate.
Before the visibly disappointed Rice could make it to the sidelines, linebacker Jarret Johnson grabbed him by the head with both hands, looked directly into Rice's eyes and said a few words. Flacco also sought out the sophomore runner and hugged him on the sidelines.
Rice will head to the Pro Bowl in a couple weeks, a deserving end to a spectacular season. But it certainly wasn't the way he wanted it to finish.
"You will never see us quit," Rice said. "You will never see me quit. It's just one of those games were things didn't go our way. We will learn from this and that's what the offseason is for."