Ray Rice grows into a leader as he prepares to sign new contract

The game hadn't even started before Ray Rice faked out 70,000 people at M&T Bank Stadium.

As the Ravens offense was introduced before Sunday's 24-10 win over the Indianapolis Colts, Rice, the last player out of the tunnel, started to bust out the signature dance of linebacker Ray Lewis. Before the crowd could finish gasping, Rice stopped, flexed and flashed a wide smile.

With Lewis in the twilight of his career (and out of the lineup), Rice has become one of the faces of the franchise, appearing on TV commercials, billboards and soon the cover of the "NFL Blitz" video game. And at season's end, the Ravens will have to pay the star running back accordingly.

In the final season of the four-year rookie contract he inked in 2008, Rice is arguably having the most productive season of his young career — and one of the finest by a running back in Ravens history. He doesn't deny that individual accomplishments mean a lot to him, but he chooses to ponder his place among the NFL's greatest backs of past and present only when each season is over.

"I know there's a lot more football left," said Rice, who rushed for 103 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries Sunday, the first time in his career that he has had back-to-back 100-yard games. "And I always do my reflecting on how the season played out a couple weeks after the season."

Rice leads the NFL with 1,622 yards from scrimmage — Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew and Houston's Arian Foster are second and third, respectively, with 1,570 and 1,500 — and his 12 total touchdowns are tied for fourth in the NFL with Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson and Detroit wide out Calvin Johnson. Philadelphia's LeSean McCoy leads with 17 touchdowns.

"[Rice] can break tackles and creep through some holes because he's so small," said offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie, who played with Peterson in Minnesota. "He's an explosive back."

Added fullback Vonta Leach, who paved lanes for Foster with the Texans in 2010, "Everybody talks about the top guys, Adrian Peterson and Arian Foster. Ray should be in that category."

After Sunday's performance, Rice has 1,029 rushing yards on 234 carries, making him the first Ravens back since Jamal Lewis to rush for 1,000 yards in three consecutive seasons (2002-04).

"It means a lot to me. Any time I do something, I give my credit to the offensive line," Rice said. "But to do three straight, it does say something consistency-wise. I try to just stay the course."

For the elusive Rice, the course to the end zone — his preferred flexing location — usually isn't a straight line, but he is getting there often. He has set career highs with 10 rushing touchdowns and two receiving touchdowns. And he's 310 yards shy of his highest single-season rushing total (1,339 in 2009), which he will overtake if he averages 104 yards in his final three games.

Since he was handed the ball just five times in a 22-17 loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Nov. 13, Rice has averaged 24 carries, piling up 470 rushing yards and four scores in four Ravens wins.

"That's what this time of year is going to have to be about," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "You're going to have to be able to [run the ball]. There are going to be games when you're not going to be able to run the ball, and we'll have to lean on the passing game. But, if you can run the ball, and you can stop the run, you should always have a chance this time of year."

Given his lighter workload after Joe Flacco and the 10-3 Ravens chucked the football all over the place in the season's first half, Rice said he is "pretty fresh" as the postseason approaches.

"I'm not saying I saved my best for the end of the season, but I'm doing a great job of keeping myself fresh," said Rice, adding that it is "a great relief" when backup Ricky Williams spells him.

The Ravens have committed to Rice down the stretch. Will they commit to him at season's end?

Tennessee running back Chris Johnson signed a four-year, $53 million deal before the start of the season. Peterson and the Minnesota Vikings agreed in September on a seven-year, $100 million extension with $36 million guaranteed. Rice and his agent surely took notice, though the Ravens could also keep him under contractual control for 2012 by slapping the franchise tag on him.

The team has a policy of not discussing contracts and no official would comment for this story, and an email to Rice's agent was not returned by press time. But in an interview with the NFL Network last week, the 24-year-old expressed a desire to remain in Baltimore next season.

"They've always did a good job of keeping their star players around and I think I'll be one of the guys that [they sign] in the off season — or whenever it is," Rice told the network. "I figure if you take care of the game, the game will take care of you, and I'll be a Baltimore Raven next year."

Rice is already the second-leading rusher in franchise history, trailing Jamal Lewis, who rumbled for 7,801 yards as a Raven. He is 23 touchdowns shy of Lewis' franchise-record 45 rushing TDs.

If Rice signs on long-term in Baltimore, he will get an excellent opportunity to run down Jamal Lewis' records. And whenever Ray Lewis retires — a thought that hasn't seemed as scary of late — Rice seems poised to be the face of the franchise, one whose dance moves fire up fans before home games.

"He comes into his own every week more and more. He started off the season as a leader and he has grown in that role," Harbaugh said. And as a player, Rice "is getting better every week."