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Spitballin’

Spitballin’

In Ray We Trust

Fourth and 29? Are you kidding me? Fourth and 29, and you dump it underneath to your running back? Are you seriously kidding me? Oh wait, that running back is Ray “I’m About To Get 30 Yards, Then Maybe Cure Leprosy After the Game” Rice? Well then, carry on. Why the hell not? Apparently the Orioles aren’t the only birds in this town packing a peck of magic, and no Raven has got more than Little Ray. This kid is the Gandalf of the gridiron.

A lot of people doubted Ray Rice coming out of college because he’s little, but honestly, the amount of strength, speed, balance, and implacable heart he packs into 5 feet and 8 inches . . . if he were 6-foot, there’d be none of that stuff left for the rest of us. If you missed the play, get thee to a YouTubery—it was the moment the Ravens’ season went from good to oh-my-sweet-Lord-in-Heaven great.

This year, the Ravens had been building a reputation for futility on the road rivaled only by Viggo Mortensen in a film adaptation of a Cormac McCarthy novel. On Sunday in San Diego, the Ravens looked to continue the trend. The defense held Philip Rivers and company to a measly 13 points and looked stout for the third straight game and served notice to the rest of the NFL: Baltimore has a pass rush. But for the first half, the offense was dismal, and the third quarter wasn’t much better.

Sure, there were bright spots. On third and seven in the first drive of the second half, Torrey Smith took a little 3-yard crossing pass from Joe Flacco and turned the stadium on its ear: Smith tore to the right sideline before turning it upfield and back to the middle, scorching the Chargers’ defense for 54 yards, to the Chargers’ 27. But like a fart in the face of Hurricane Sandy, the Ravens’ momentum dissipated and they had to settle for a field goal. Later in the quarter, Baltimore mounted an impressive 62-yard drive, all the way to the San Diego 14, but came away with nothing when running back Bernard Pierce was stopped for a loss on fourth and inches. Of course, magic only matters when things look bleak, and without that disappointing drive, there’d have been no need for Little Ray’s 30-yard opus.

The Ravens had finally broken a string of six straight quarters without a touchdown to make a game of it, but they were still down by three and facing fourth and 29. Fourth and 29? NFL coaches have a play for everything, but not for fourth and 29; nobody makes that. You’ve got better odds of winning Powerball without buying a ticket. It’s unheard of.

Fourth and 29, Flacco dropped back to pass; Ravens receivers Smith, Anquan Boldin, and Jacoby Jones, along with tight end Dennis Pitta, went streaking down the field, but each of them was swallowed up by the tight Chargers coverage. With no where else to go, Flacco dumped the ball off to Little Ray, just a yard downfield, and prayed for a miracle. Well, this Sunday, there was a miracle wearing number 27. Needing 28 more of those 29 yards, Rice took the little lob from Flacco in the right flat and hit the gas. He bolted upfield, untouched, for 13 more and was just past midfield with another 15 to go, with Chargers linebacker Shaun Phillips right behind him and three more Bolts gathered in front.

A powder-blue sea seemed set to engulf the littlest Raven, and Rice looked done for until he slammed on the breaks and ran hard to his left. Phillips, charging from behind, couldn’t match Rice’s otherworldly cut and ran right by. The first two Chargers in front—linebackers Takeo Spikes and Demorrio Williams—ended up in a tangle as they dove awkwardly where Little Ray should have been but miraculously was not. Rice shuddered the third, cornerback Marcus Gilchrest, and sent him to the turf with a stiff-arm like the hammer of Thor.

Somehow, Rice rode the wave of Chargers back to the left, crossed the lightning bolt at midfield, and began the turn back up toward the sticks. He’d gotten 9 more yards, but was being hemmed in by DBs Corey Lynch and Pro Bowler Eric Weddle. All looked lost when the cavalry, in the ferocious form of Anquan Boldin, came galloping in with an obliterating block that sent both Bolts defenders hurtling toward earth and Rice.

Rice bounced off of the careening Weddle and drove hard straight upfield. Cornerbacks Quentin Jammer and Antoine Cason were the only two men left to beat, but they were closing fast, a 400-pound advancing wall of flesh, bone, and polycarbonate, and still 6 yards to go for that first down. There would be no more tricks, no more cuts, or another cavalry charge. From here, guts and power were all that were left for the diminutive ’back. Ray Rice put his head down and drove hard, blasting into the diving defenders and dragging them those final feet. Still prone on the turf, Rice turned toward the sideline, searching for the markers. First down, Ravens.

That play didn’t win the game. The Ravens would still need to drive another 14 yards for Justin Tucker’s game-tying field goal and then battle through nearly 14 grueling minutes of overtime to nail down the 16-13 win, but make no mistake, after Rice’s remarkable run, there was no turning back. This game was Baltimore’s. The will showed by Little Ray was such that no Raven would dare face him with anything less than a win. Every season has a hero. Every season has a moment—the head of a pin where it all turns about, and for Baltimore, this might just be it. As the Ravens go on this season, they will be riding this moment just the way this hero, Ray Rice, rode that heaving tide of blue to victory.

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