OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- It's the time of year when Ray Rice usually begins to feel the effects of being the Baltimore Ravens' go-to guy on offence.
This season, however, has been different. Rice had a combined 318 carries and catches over the 16-game schedule, the lowest total since his rookie year in 2008.
Part of the reason is that the Ravens (11-6) relied heavily on quarterback Joe Flacco, who set a career high in yards passing. In addition, rookie Bernard Pierce logged 108 carries as Rice's backup.
Rice isn't complaining, because he's neither tired or bruised as the Ravens prepare for their 18th game of the season, on Saturday in Denver against the top-seeded Broncos (13-3).
"I'm fresh in the playoffs. I'm healthy," the 5-foot-8 Rice said. "This is the best I've ever felt, but obviously, that's because I've had a guy come in, and when he gets in there, and we don't lose a step."
Pierce will get his share of carries against the Broncos, but the Ravens will be counting heavily on Rice to help establish ball control and, in the process, keep Denver quarterback Peyton Manning off the field.
"He's a great back and can obviously turn a little play into a 50-yard gain," Baltimore guard Marshal Yanda said. "It's exciting to block for guys like that. You want guys like that on your team -- playmakers. He's been doing that for us for five years. We know what he's about and how important he is to our offence."
Rice had his fourth straight 1,000-yard rushing season and earned his third invitation to the Pro Bowl. His numbers during the regular season are usually impressive, but in the playoffs he's topped the 70-yard mark on the ground only once -- a 159-yard effort against New England in January 2010.
"Obviously, I want to be a guy that's remembered by his playoff play," Rice said. "It's time to step it up another level."
Sometimes, though, his presence in the backfield is all it takes to help Baltimore win.
"There might be times where in the pass game I took out two defenders so one guy can get open," Rice said. "There are times where there's a fake where Joe Flacco can fake it to me, and there's an over route coming across the middle. If it's being a decoy, that's sometimes what you have to be. I like having the target on my back."
That bulls-eye is being shared by Pierce, who ran for 103 yards last week in Baltimore's 24-9 win over Indianapolis. Although Rice should get the majority of the carries Saturday, Pierce will see playing time, too.
"The fact that the altitude is probably going to be a factor as far as guys who are carrying the ball getting gassed, those two guys are going to take care of each other," coach John Harbaugh said. "That's something we've been building on."
But Rice remains the focal part of the offence.
"Ray Rice is extremely important to this team," guard Kelechi Osemele said. "If you don't have a running game you won't have a passing game. Guys will just pin their ears back and rush. Ray is also a great blocker and can slip out of the backfield and make some plays in open space, too. You can't really replace a player like that."
During the regular season Rice fumbled only one time, and Baltimore recovered the loose ball. Against the Colts, he lost two fumbles. He accepted blame for the miscues, but vows it won't happen again. Ever.
"As a runner, there's a certain time where you have to be smart, and going to the playoffs, I have to be smart," he said. "As a runner, you learn from it. It's not something that I'm used to doing, obviously. I'm used to scoring touchdowns and making plays. I will continue to try to make plays, but I'll be smarter."