OWINGS MILLS, Md. — When Ray Rice looks back on the 2011 season, he will readily acknowledge that he's never had a better year.
Rice was the NFL's second-leading rusher and the only player in the league to amass more than 2,000 total yards. He set a Baltimore Ravens franchise record with 15 touchdowns, earned a second straight Pro Bowl berth and even had his image on the cover of the new NFL Blitz video game.
Rice isn't done yet. His goal is to play in the Super Bowl for the first time, and that will remain his focus for as long as the Ravens remain in the playoffs.
"I usually wait until the end of the season to embrace what I've accomplished," Rice said Wednesday. "Right now we're still going, So I don't say 'Wow' just yet. But I think is the most productive I've been in my entire career."
The statistics bear out his assessment. Not only did Rice run for a career-high 204 yards in a win over Cleveland on Dec. 4, but against Cincinnati last Sunday he had touchdown runs of 70 and 51 yards to carry Baltimore to a 24-16 victory. His 191-yard performance provided the Ravens (12-4) with the AFC North division crown, a first-round bye and the second seed in the AFC playoffs.
All of this is quite pleasing to the 5-foot-8, 212-pounder. But his real goal is to hug the Lombardi Trophy amid a shower of confetti at the Super Bowl.
"You set personal goals. Everybody does that. But if you set personal goals and you achieve them and your team is winning, there's no better feeling," Rice said. "Everyone knows me around here. They know I don't talk about my stats. Everything that's coming to me, as far as rewards and accolades, I take the time to embrace them at the end of the season because I feel there's so much more out there for this team."
There is reason to believe the Ravens will go as far Rice carries them. Baltimore has a stout defense and a capable passing game, but its strength is the running of Rice, who's never been better than this season.
"His vision and his courses and his aiming points and all those things continue to get better all the time," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "He is still young, he is still growing. His best football is still in front of him."
It could happen in the weeks ahead. Although this is the time of year when many running backs begin to slow under the barrage of hits taken over the course of a season, Rice had his two most productive games over the final month.
It is not a coincidence.
"He's got all the God-given ability, but he also works hard," Ravens backup running back Ricky Williams said. "It's rare to find that combination. In my mind, there's only one way to have success, and that's to work hard and have a little bit of talent. He's got both. He's been fun to watch, him breaking big runs in big games."
Rice had five runs of 40 yards or more, the most in the NFL. Three of those came over the final four weeks.
"Everybody comes into the season fast and strong, but you see the guys that are dwindling down," Rice said. "Not to pat myself on the back, but ... now you can see I'm scoring touchdowns with the long runs. That's just a tribute to climbing at the end of the season."
As a tribute to his fine play and popularity with the fans, Rice was voted to be on the first-ever EA SPORTS digital cover. NFL Blitz, which became available for Xbox LIVE Arcade and PlayStation Network on Wednesday, depicts Rice running the ball in his white road uniform — and quite literally on fire.
"For the fans to vote me in, it's an amazing accomplishment," said Rice, an avid video-game player. "You see all the other players that have been on the cover and now it's you, it's like a childhood dream. For other people to believe that you deserved it, it humbles you."
It's all part of the payoff for a sensational season. Rice finished first in the NFL with 2,068 total yards from scrimmage, including 76 receptions for 704 yards and three touchdowns.
He is the final weeks of his original four-year rookie contract that paid him $550,000 this season after a $1.1 million signing bonus received in 2008. Soon, he will be a millionaire many times over.
"After the season it's going to be a great time to reflect, especially me being in my contract year," he said. "I have nothing to worry about. I know I'm going to be here. I've put myself in a position to be with the Ravens. I'm not going anywhere. I did everything I had to do on the field. You take care of the game, the game will take care of you."