It's easy to feel the enthusiasm for the game, and the excitement for the spotlight, that Ravens rookie running back J.K. Dobbins possesses.
After Dobbins ran for 160 yards and two touchdowns to help the Ravens clinch a playoff berth Sunday in Cincinnati, he could hardly contain himself.
"I've been dreaming about the Super Bowl and the NFL playoffs since I was a little kid. And now, it's finally here," Dobbins said with a wide smile. "I want to play in the big games, always. They say big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games – and I want to see if I'm a big-time player."
Head Coach John Harbaugh was next to step up to the podium and talk with reporters. Before he did, he grabbed Dobbins and told him, "You are a big-time player."
As Dobbins makes his first trip to the playoffs, the rookie second-round pick is already a star and a huge part of the Ravens' dangerous offensive formula.
Top-seeded Baltimore had a record-setting offense last year entering its opening playoff game against the Tennessee Titans. It had a record-setting rushing attack. But the Ravens didn't have a weapon like Dobbins, and that could make a mighty big difference this time around.
Asked Sunday what the key has been to the Ravens' running game surge over the past five weeks, Harbaugh pointed to the offensive line and the blocking of the receivers. But he started with the running backs.
"A lot of these guys are just executing really well," Harbaugh said. "The running backs are running very well. They're making guys miss. They're breaking tackles."
Speaking about Dobbins on Monday, Harbaugh said "I love him as a person and a player."
After Dobbins fumbled against the Jacksonville Jaguars a couple weeks ago, Harbaugh coached him up on the importance of holding onto the ball while he picked sod out of the rookie's facemask. When the Ravens faced a goal-line situation later in the game, Dobbins got the call again, and this time he scored. Dobbins came to the sideline, hugged Harbaugh and thanked his coach for trusting him.
"I'm always going to trust you. You know why?" Harbaugh said, thumping Dobbins' chest. "Because you've got that big ticker right in there – pumping. I love it."
Dobbins' nine touchdowns this season are the most by a rookie in franchise history. His six consecutive games with at least 50 rushing yards and a rushing touchdown is tied for the longest rookie streak since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger, matching a couple of Hall of Famers in Eric Dickerson and Franco Harris.
Dobbins only reached double-digit carries in two of his first nine games as he was third in the Ravens' pecking order behind veteran Mark Ingram II and Gus Edwards. Yet he finished the season with 805 yards rushing and averaged 6.0 yards per carry. That's the most yards per carry of any running back in the NFL – more than Cleveland's Nick Chubb (5.6), Green Bay's Aaron Jones (5.5) and Tennessee's Derrick Henry (5.4).
Dobbins' speed to get the edge has stretched opposing defenses horizontally, helping to open up the middle for Edwards and Lamar Jackson – both running and passing. Opponents can no longer pack the middle of the field like the Titans did in last year's playoff upset.
There was no better display of Dobbins' mixture of power, balance and speed than his 72-yard touchdown run against the Bengals, in which he stiff-armed linebacker Germaine Pratt before hitting the jets and pulling away from the pack. Dobbins said fullback Patrick Ricard texted him earlier in the week saying they had to break a big run – one of the few things they hadn't yet accomplished this season.
"I wanted that to happen and so, on that TD run, it was excellent blocking," Dobbins said. "Whenever I got to the sideline — a lot of people don't think I can run. A lot of people don't think that. And so, I finally got the opportunity to show my speed and that [if] you give me an opportunity to go, I'm going to go and I won't get caught."
Dobbins finished with the 18th-most rushing yards in the NFL this season and third-most rushing yards among rookie running backs, trailing the Indianapolis Colts' Jonathan Taylor (1,169) and Jacksonville Jaguars' James Robinson (1,070).
Dobbins was perturbed that he was the fifth running back drafted this year, trailing the Chiefs' Clyde Helaire-Edwards, Lions' D'Andre Swift, Taylor, and Rams' Cam Akers. Dobbins' patience was tested too, as he often saw fewer carries than Ingram and Edwards over the first half of the season.
"I don't know that he's been waiting for his opportunity. He's been working for his opportunity – growing and learning, [being] a great competitor for us," Harbaugh said. "He's done a great job. He's got a great attitude."
Dobbins knows he's in the right place, and that was hammered home when the Ravens topped 400 rushing yards in a dominant running performance in Cincinnati.
"It's an amazing feeling. I'm so happy to be here; I'm so happy to be a Raven," Dobbins said. "Getting into the playoffs is a great accomplishment, and I'm glad I can experience that my rookie year. But I'm the type of guy who wants more. I want to be great. I don't want to be mediocre. Yes, I'm glad to be in the playoffs, but I know the goal and I know why I was brought here. And I'm just going to do everything I can to help this team win this first playoff game."
There's a little Baltimore history to rookie running backs propelling an offense in a playoff run.
In 2012, third-round rookie running back Bernard Pierce teamed up with Ray Rice to boost the Ravens' rushing attack down the stretch. Pierce got hotter as the season progressed and led Baltimore in rushing in two of four playoff games (vs. Colts and vs. Patriots).
In 2000, first-round rookie running back Jamal Lewis carried the load for the Ravens offense for much of the season and especially in the playoffs, when he topped 100 yards twice and scored four touchdowns. He became the youngest player to ever score a touchdown in a Super Bowl.
Last week, Dobbins broke Lewis' record for most rushing touchdowns by a Ravens rookie, and he knew the historical significance.
"It means a lot to me," Dobbins said. "Jamal Lewis, I mean, he won NFL Offensive Player of the Year [in 2003], and he's an amazing player. So, for me to do that, it's an honor and a blessing. I'm just going to keep trying to get better."
Now Dobbins will look to keep growing and follow in Lewis' footsteps in his first trip to the playoffs, starting with Tennessee. Dobbins' streak of six consecutive games with a touchdown began against the Titans earlier this season, when he ran for 70 yards and a score on a season-high 15 carries.
Some were surprised when the Ravens drafted Dobbins in the second round when they already had Ingram, Edwards and Justice Hill. But the Ravens did so knowing the Ohio State product could not only be a long-term lead back in Baltimore, but a difference-maker down the stretch this season.
"I can tell you this; I'm taking this opportunity to heart," Dobbins said. "I'm going to try to do my best, and you're going to get the best out of me."