Pack Passes Major Road Test, Led By Hawk's Career Day

I don't know about you guys, but I'm enjoying watching the 2013 Packers and am starting to believe that if they can stay reasonably healthy, they're built to win in the post season.

Don't get me wrong. The fourth quarter defensive breakdowns on the road are keeping our knuckles white, but what we're seeing right now is a Packer team that is undergoing an identity shift.

We saw it on opening day in San Francisco, when the Packers aimed to prove they could be as physical and nasty as the 49ers and for most of the game they were (of course, they inexplicably forgot that Anquan Boldin was on the field). They've gotten more comfortable in their new skin each week and Sunday showed the Ravens that they are starting to resemble their bitter rivals, the Steelers (not this year's version, of course).

Down two linebackers, including their all-everything pass rusher Clay Matthews, the Packers defense turned in a virtuoso performance through three quarters, led by AJ Hawk. I know, right? This was unquestionably Hawk's finest game as a pro: 10 tackles, eight solo, five tackles for a loss and three sacks. Three sacks. AJ Hawk. The dude should have cut his hair years ago.

And Hawk's heroic effort came on the road in a place where the home team had won 26 of its last 29 and had never lost to an NFC team in six years under John Harbaugh.

Hawk was everywhere and his play rubbed off on newcomer Jamari Lattimore, who had two tackles for loss himself and was more than up to the challenge all afternoon. The run defense has been outstanding all season--and continued in Baltimore. 47 yards, two yards per carry. That kind of effort keeps you in football games. That kind of run defense wins you a lot of games, especially in December and January.

The back end held up well through three quarters, until Jerron McMillain nearly cost the team the game, with two ridiculous mistakes that first converted a 4th and 21 and then allowed an easy touchdown to Dallas Clark that breathed life into the Ravens in the closing moments. But for most of the day, the secondary was very good. Torrey Smith was held to one catch for 12 yards and first Davon House and then Micah Hyde made enough big plays to assure us there is real depth at the position, especially with Casey Hayward likely to return next week.

Tramon Williams is starting to look like the weakest link. Safe to say he's in his last year in green and gold.

Offensively, a bothersome 2013 trend is developing--one where key skill position players exit early with injuries. Before Sunday, it was Eddie Lacy a couple of times, Jermichael Finley once. On this day it was James Jones in the first quarter and Randall Cobb shortly before halftime with knee injuries. No word yet on how bad they are, but early national reports indicate neither will be lost for the season. Our fingers are crossed.

So with just two healthy receivers in the second half, much of the playbook had to be scrapped. The Pack did what it's done since week two: ran the ball down their opponents' throats. Lacy is developing into the most hard-nosed runner we've seen in years, one who bounces off of hits and falls forward for extra yards. You gotta love what you see from Lacy.

Make no mistake, this is what the Packers offense is this year. It's an offense that probably will never have a full complement of players, but as long as Lacy stays healthy, defenses will have to honor the threat he is, which will allow Rodgers to do his thing, even if he has fewer weapons.

The bomb to Jordy Nelson was the play of the game, but there were so many others: the blocked punt that John Kuhn had a brain fart on; the fourth down goal line stand that ended the Ravens' ensuing drive on the Packers' one yard line in the second quarter; the 52 yard dagger to Jermichael Finley on the final drive that basically put the game on ice.

It was 16-3 late in the third quarter and it looked like we were going to make a road defensive statement like the Super Bowl team did that season in New York against the Jets, but then things got a little scary, headlined by McMillain's slip that allowed Flacco to convert on 4th and 21, score one player and draw within one score.

But on a day where the defense ruled, it was the offense that sealed it, behind the legs of Lacy and the big catch by Finley. The offensive line once again handled a tough front seven and made room for 140 yards on the ground and more than 300 yards through the air.

As we await word on Cobb and Jones, we look at the 3-2 start and think, okay, we've played four playoff teams in five games--the other against an improved Lions team. The next six opponents feature just one playoff team from a year ago (the woeful Vikings), so there's a chance at putting a nice little run together. Next up, Brandon Weeden and the Browns at Lambeau.

What we've learned through five games is that this Packers team does not resemble the teams we've watched the past couple of years. This team is tougher, more physical, more balanced and deeper. Feels like a team built to excel when the weather turns and the games mean more. Now, if they can only get somewhat healthy.

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