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NEW ORLEANS — Ray Rice has always been a fan of running backs. As a kid, he admired Barry Sanders and Emmitt Smith. He wears No. 27 because of Eddie George. He has studied the Niners' Frank Gore, and he was in awe of the season Adrian Peterson had this year for the Vikings.

So it's understandable if the Ravens' tailback bristles at the notion that running backs aren't as valuable as they once were, that they've become interchangeable parts in an increasingly pass-happy league.

“I think every running back came out with a chip on their shoulder this year,” Rice said this week, “because everybody was saying our value was going down. It's been really special to see what a lot of running backs have done this year.

“We're like a big fraternity,” he said. “I like to see all the running backs do well, because it brings our value up for the next generation that comes in. Running backs aren't going anywhere.”

But it's been a long time since they've gone up to accept a Super Bowl MVP trophy. Hard as it is to believe, it has been 15 long seasons since a running back won MVP in the big game. The last was Terrell Davis, who took the honor after rushing for 157 yards and three touchdowns for the Broncos in a 31-24 win over the Packers in Super Bowl XXXII.

Only one running back has gained 100 yards for the winning team in the last nine Super Bowls. Dominic Rhodes rushed for 113 yards for the Colts in their win over the Bears six years ago.

In recent years, it's been fashionable for teams to ride the arm of an elite quarterback to the Lombardi Trophy. The dominant featured back has become an antiquated notion at this stage of the season. Teams are more likely to use a tandem backfield.

Rice can live with that. A year ago, he led the NFL with 2,068 yards from scrimmage, He had 1,364 yards rushing and another 704 yards receiving. It was his second 2,000-yard season in three years, and people expected more of the same in his fifth pro season.

Instead, Rice had his fewest touches and yards since his rookie season. He finished with 1,143 rushing yards and 478 in receptions. He had 49 fewer touches than a year ago. Rookie Bernard Pierce has assumed some of the load with 108 carries for 532 yards.

And Rice loves it.

“Sharing the load at running back is probably one of the greatest things that's happened to me,” he said, “because I don't have to put that wear and tear on my body. I have a great young running back who can come in and take some of the pressure off me.”

Rice was fresher for the postseason as a result. He and Pierce split carries evenly in the wild-card win over the Colts. A rested Rice ripped off season highs of 30 carries and 131 yards in an upset of the Broncos in the divisional round. Pierce had 52 yards rushing and Rice 48 in the AFC title game against the Patriots.

“How do you not respect our run game over the last couple weeks?” Rice said. “We've been putting up tremendous numbers. You go down the playoff stats, the Ravens are ranked pretty high. We're up there with the best of the best.”

He's right. The Ravens are averaging 149 yards rushing in the playoffs. The Niners have their own formidable tandem in Frank Gore and the emerging LaMichael James. In Colin Kaepernick, they also have a quarterback who can affect a game with his legs.

So this could be a departure from recent Super Bowls, featuring teams with hard-hitting defenses and deep running attacks. A running back might even wind up being the MVP.

“It's hard to say who's going to be the star of the game,” Rice said. “It's all about who makes the big play. It could be a guy coming off the bench to make a winning catch.”

It could be Rice, who made the most remarkable reception of the season back in November in San Diego. With the Ravens trailing by three and facing a fourth-and-29 late in the game, Rice turned a swing pass into a 30-yard gain. A few plays later, the Ravens tied the game and they won it in overtime, 16-13.

After that improbable win, Rice coined the phrase, “Hey Diddle Diddle, Ray Rice up the middle.” He printed tee shirts with that slogan and donated the proceeds to his personal foundation. If not for that play, the Ravens — who lost their next three — might not be here.

“Oh, I don't want to take all that credit,” Rice said with a laugh. “I do think it was a turning point in our season, because we were struggling on the road. We played the Steelers, San Diego and the Steelers again. That was the toughest three games of the year.”

At 5-foot-9, 195 pounds, Rice, a Rutgers product, has been compared with Bills great Thurman Thomas, a similarly short, shifty and powerful runner who is equally dangerous as a receiver out of the backfield. Like Thomas, Rice was underestimated coming out of college. He was the 55th pick in 2008. Twenty years earlier, Thurman went 40th to the Bills. He rode his resentment all the way to the Hall of Fame.

“Coming out, I was told I wasn't fast enough or strong enough,” Rice said. “I definitely wasn't tall enough. I couldn't run. I couldn't jump high. I couldn't do a lot of stuff. That's been the story of my life. Am I satisfied now? Absolutely not.”

email: jsullivan@buffnews.com