Ravens facing another top-notch QB in Rodgers

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Traversing a gauntlet of top quarterbacks has brought the Baltimore Ravens' defense to the hallowed ground of Lambeau Field tonight.   Outdueled previously by Brett Favre, Philip Rivers, Peyton Manning and Carson Palmer, now the Ravens are squaring off with Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

He's another formidable passer who's arguably emerging as one of the elite young players in the game regardless of position.

  The Ravens' wild-card hopes were boosted significantly by the Pittsburgh Steelers' shocking upset loss Sunday to the Oakland Raiders for the reigning Super Bowl champions' fourth loss in a row. To take advantage of the opportunity, they'll need to figure out a way to disrupt Rodgers' impeccable timing with wide receivers Donald Driver and Greg Jennings.

  As the anointed successor to Brett Favre, Rodgers has completed 65.5 percent of his throws for 3,136 yards, 22 touchdowns and just five interceptions for a sterling 104.9 passer rating.

  "Obviously, he's got a great arm," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "He's accurate, he stands in. He's courageous. He stands in there and makes throws. He's almost most dangerous when he gets out and he starts running.

  "He's got a little Favre to him in that sense. He gets out and makes plays on the run really well, so he's done a great job. We'll try to figure out a way to stop him. It won't be easy."

  Rodgers is particularly dangerous on third downs, where he ranks first among all quarterbacks with a 135.5 rating. And he's on pace to pile up 4,561 yards for the season, which would eclipse Lynn Dickey's franchise record.

  Driver has caught 53 passes for 844 yards and five touchdowns, and Jennings has produced 47 catches for 722 yards and three scores.

  "Their wide receiver corps is magnificent," said rookie cornerback Lardarius Webb, who figures to be targeted often. "This quarterback has got a rocket arm. Great challenge for our defensive backs. The best man will win it. It should be a great challenge on Monday Night Football."  

Although Rodgers has been sacked an NFL-high 44 times, the Packers' pass protection has improved markedly over the past few weeks as the offensive line has gotten healthier.

  With Pro Bowl outside linebacker Terrell Suggs not expected to miss his third game in a row due to a sprained medial collateral ligament, the Ravens haven't generated a sack ever since he got hurt.

  If Rodgers has a relative eternity of time to find his receivers, the Ravens could find themselves in big trouble.

  "They've really pieced some things together here at the end," middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. "The offensive line is communicating way better and kind of playing much better. I don't think you want to get caught up in what happened earlier, I think you get caught up in what happened lately. As of late, they're covering him up and protecting him well."

  Recent history against elite quarterbacks indicates that the Ravens could have problems with Rodgers.  

Favre threw for 278 yards and three touchdowns against Baltimore. Manning was intercepted twice, but he also threw a touchdown and finished with 299 yards. Rivers shredded the Ravens for 436 yards and two scores.

  The shutout against Cleveland Browns quarterback Brady Quinn and containing the Steelers' Dennis Dixon were impressive, and the Ravens have only allowed an average of 11.3 points over the past three games.  

Rodgers, though, with his big arm and pinpoint accuracy, is in an entirely different realm than the likes of Quinn and Dixon.  

The secondary will need to dispel the notion that they're not equipped to halt a quarterback like Rodgers.

  "Now there are a lot of people that would probably dispute this, but I think our secondary has played well all year," Harbaugh said. "And we talked about specific plays where we've had lapses, where we've let the ball get thrown over our head, but some of those have been scrambles, some of those have been situations where quarterbacks have been on the run and guys have broken loose over the top. Some have been some mistakes early on.  

"We haven't given up too many lately. I think we've covered tight all year, aggressively all year. Our guys study like no group I've ever seen, extremely well coached. So, we think we match up fine, and it's going to be a real good secondary against a real good group of receivers."

   The Ravens rank fourth in the NFL in scoring defense, allowing just 17.1 points per game.

  That hasn't gone unnoticed by Rodgers.

  "Obviously, we know what kind of players those guys are," Rodgers said. "They're probably first-ballot Hall of Famer guys, guys who have been playing at a very high level, Pro Bowl level for a number of years. So, they're definitely guys we need to account for every play and be aware of.

  "But they put their uniform on the same as all of us and they've got to line up and play against us as well. They're talented players, but we're definitely going to stick to our scheme and hopefully be able to make some plays."

  The Ravens (6-5) can take confidence in having won both of their previous prime-time games this season with victories over the Browns and the Steelers.

  And the Packers have won their past three games in a row, rebounding from a startling loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

  Even though the Steelers lost, the Ravens wouldn't make the playoffs if the season ended today.

  They are one game behind the Jacksonville Jaguars (7-5), who own the tiebreaker edge for the sixth and final AFC playoff berth over the Ravens with a superior conference record. And the Ravens are two games behind the Denver Broncos (8-4) in the wild-card standings.  

The Broncos are expected to win at least 10 games since they have upcoming games against the Kansas City Chiefs and Raiders.

The Jaguars could possibly stumble in the stretch run since they have to play the Miami Dolphins, Indianapolis Colts and the New England Patriots.

  "We're fighting to be an elite, playoff-type team," Harbaugh said. "To be that, we have to win our share of close games against the best. Let's see if we can do that this last third of the season."

  Tonight's game is absolutely pivotal. Even with winnable upcoming games against the Detroit Lions, Chicago Bears and the Raiders, the Ravens can't afford to lose against the Packers.

  In franchise history, the Ravens have lost all six previous road games against NFC North teams.  

So, the tension and stakes both figure to be extremely high against Rodgers and the Packers  

"It's wearing on you, but we kind of did it to ourselves," linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "You've got to fight to stay above water. We've done that, and we've fought to stay in contention and we hold our own destiny.  

"If we continue to do that, we can be in the playoffs. But we like it like that. You don't want to come out and have meaningless games or anything like that. It's been a tough year, but we're doing good."


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