http://host.madison.com/content/tncms/assets/editorial/9/6d/965/96d9652c-af1e-11de-b60e-001cc4c002e0.image.jpg" alt="" width="108" height="103" align="left" />GREEN BAY — Ray Lewis doesn’t speak so much as he growls, which makes him the perfect spokesman for the Baltimore Ravens.
Led by Lewis, the NFL’s most ferocious linebacker since Dick Butkus, Baltimore is one of the NFL’s most physical teams.
“It’s who we are,” Lewis said Thursday. “We like running the football. We like playing physical football on defense. That’s been our motto for years around here. Since I’ve been here, that’s just the way it is. There’s no trick to it. We just like playing physical football, bottom line.”
The Green Bay Packers like playing physical football, too. Coach Mike McCarthy has preached the virtues of punishing opponents since he arrived in 2006. It’s just that most people think of the Packers as a finesse team, a notion that took root when the run defense fell apart last season and gained strength when the offensive line was overrun weekly by opposing pass-rushers earlier this season.
The Packers’ chances of securing a playoff bid will depend largely on their ability to change that perception over the next three weeks, starting Monday night when they play the Ravens at Lambeau Field. With the weather turning cold and outdoor road games against Chicago and Pittsburgh — two more teams that pride themselves on being physical — coming up after Baltimore, the Packers will have to punish or perish.
“We bask in those moments, especially late in the season when the weather’s getting cold and teams are going to start to rely a lot more on the running game and keeping things simple,” Packers linebacker Brady Poppinga said. “So we’re looking forward to that challenge.”
The only way the Packers can pass that test and maintain their pole position in the NFC wild card race is by matching the physicality of their next three opponents. With temperatures expected to be in the 20s Monday, the ability to control the line of scrimmage will take on added importance, as it always does when the weather turns frightful.
“This is Green Bay Packer football; it’s playing in December,” McCarthy said. “We feel we’re talented on the perimeter, but it starts up front. This is the time of the year where people have to run the football and stop the run.”
The problem is, the only thing more frightful than the weather is the Ravens. They love to run the ball with their three-headed tailback — versatile Ray Rice, 235-pound Willis McGahee and 260-pound Le’Ron McClain — and their attacking defense allows fewer yards per rush than any team in the NFL.
“I think Baltimore thrives on being tough,” Packers defensive tackle Ryan Pickett said. “It’s an opportunity for us to show teams how physical we are. I think we’re the most physical team in the NFL. It’s a great stage to show it.”
Pickett’s opinion is a bit overstated, but the Packers are clearly playing more physically this season. They have the NFL’s top-ranked defense and it starts with the aggressive front seven controlling the run. Offensively, halfback Ryan Grant has been running the ball better in recent games, especially in the victory over a very physical San Francisco team.
But will that be enough to stand up to the Lewis-fueled intensity of the Ravens? Perhaps the biggest test for the Packers will be running the ball. When Grant gets rolling, the offense becomes nearly unstoppable — but it’s been hit-and-miss all season.
Although McCarthy staunchly defends his team’s physicality, he didn’t sound all that confident when asked about it Wednesday.
“Everybody wants to talk about the run game and, yeah, that’s a pretty good indicator,” he said. “But we’re going to do whatever it takes from a football standpoint to win games in December, and I am very confident in our style of play and how we utilize our players.”
Read into that what you will, but it’s a little scary coming from a coach who has been known to abandon the running game too quickly. In addition, McCarthy’s history in Green Bay shows he doesn’t alter his run-pass ratio much even when he gets to December.
Still, the way to win games up north in December is to be more physical than the other team. We’ll find out soon if McCarthy has the resolve and his players have the toughness to do that.