Remember the Three-Headed Monster? That nickname surfaced a year ago as Willis McGahee, Ray Rice and LeRon McClain split the Ravens' ball-carrying duties while the team rolled to the AFC championship game.
Well, say goodbye. A year later, that monster is history. McGahee and McClain will still get some carries, but Rice, in his second season, has emerged as one of the NFL's most versatile and dangerous game-breakers – a One-Headed Monster, if you will. He's going to have the ball in his hands a lot more than the other two. If he doesn't, the Ravens are only hurting themselves. A guy who is a constant threat to break big plays has to be on the field.
Rice touched the ball on 28 of the Ravens' 62 plays yesterday -- 23 rushes and five pass receptions – and picked up 108 yards as the Ravens gave Denver its first defeat of the season. Meanwhile, McGahee and McClain, in supporting roles, had just six touches combined. Both guys can play, and McClain, a Pro Bowl selection in 2008, still has a major role as a blocker and late-game ball-carrying hammer. McGahee? For a guy who produced all those touchdowns earlier this season, he's likely to see Rice collecting those 6's in the future.
It's all because of Rice's development, whose combined rushing/receiving total of 864 yards leads the league. In a season of up and down performances for the Ravens, he has been a constant, delivering big plays almost weekly.
"Ray is probably a better player than we thought when we drafted him. He's really a complete football player," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said yesterday.
But as one Three-Headed Monster disappears, another is coming into focus. (I think Halloween got to me. I'm seeing monsters everywhere.) The new one is the Ravens' trio of wide receivers – Derrick Mason, Mark Clayton and Kelley Washington.
Their position was supposedly one of the team's weakest coming into the season; more than a few folks in Ravenstown (you know who you are) believed the team had no shot at making the playoffs unless it traded for a big-time receiver, targeting Denver's Brandon Marshall as an especially attractive option.
Well, Marshall was in Baltimore yesterday, still playing for the Broncos, and he was virtually invisible, catching four passes for 24 yards. Meanwhile, Mason, Clayton and Washington combined for 15 catches worth 131 yards.
Marshall is a top-flight receiver, his quiet day yesterday notwithstanding, but it was never a good idea for the Ravens to go after him. For starters, he has a petulant streak. More importantly, it would have taken a few draft picks to pry him loose from the Broncos, and the Ravens are a winning team because they don't trade picks. Instead of dealing them away foolishly, as so many teams do, they use them to replenish their starting lineup.
And anyway, the new Three-Headed Monster of pass catchers is more than adequate. The Ravens' air game was ranked eighth in the league coming into yesterday and surely will rise in the rankings after Flacco completed his last 14 pass attempts to finish 20 of 25 for 175 yards. The Broncos hadn't allowed many third-down conversions all season, but the Ravens converted 11, mostly on passes.
Washington, who mostly just played on special teams with the Patriots before coming to Baltimore, has become an important contributor, catching 24 passes in seven games. He was a major annoyance to the Broncos yesterday, repeatedly finding openings in the secondary and picking up key first downs.
Clayton also has produced steadily in tough circumstances, with his big drop against the Patriots in Week 4 on everyone's mind. He has 23 catches for the season. And Mason, with 30 catches, is doing what he always does --making play after play as the No. 1 guy. He caught the game-clinching touchdown yesterday.
In a season in which the Ravens have lost enough close games to whittle down their margin of error, their passing game has been the least of their concerns. The Great Wide Receiver Debate, which raged for months, deserves to die. Supported by Flacco's big arm and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron's inventive play-calling, the Ravens' receivers are fine. More than fine, actually -- almost monstrous..
John Eisenberg worked in the newspaper business for 28 years as a sports columnist, with much of that time coming at the Baltimore Sun. While working for the Sun, Eisenberg spent time covering the Ravens, among other teams and events, including the Super Bowl, Final Four, World Series and Olympics. Eisenberg is also the author of seven sports-themed books.