GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) -Packers middle linebacker Nick Barnett suspects his reputation for occasionally playing beyond the whistle might have figured into his Pro Bowl snub this week.
No matter, Barnett says, because establishing an attitude for the Packers' rebuilt defense is more important than trying to win votes from opposing players.
``I'm not going to change the way I play and start trying to shake hands and be that guy,'' Barnett said. ``There's only one way I play, and that's 110 percent, and nasty, and with ferocity. I mean, I just don't know any other way. So if that did hurt me, then it hurt me. I don't care.''
Barnett, a first-round draft pick out of Oregon State in 2003 who became a starter as a rookie, was only a first alternate in Pro Bowl voting this year. But he might be the most valuable player on a greatly improved defense that has played a leading role in the 12-2 Packers' sudden resurgence.
He had one of his best games in the Packers' victory at St. Louis on Sunday, making 18 tackles, 12 solo, and sacking Rams quarterback Marc Bulger twice.
``In my opinion, he's probably the best linebacker in the NFL this year,'' fellow Packers linebacker Brady Poppinga said.
Barnett hits like a traditional middle linebacker but moves like a safety, comfortably making the snap-to-snap transition from stuffing the run to handling pass coverage assignments and getting after the quarterback.
Then there's the attitude, patterned after the player Barnett looks up to most, Baltimore's Ray Lewis.
``He has swagger and charisma pouring out of everywhere on him,'' said Packers assistant head coach Winston Moss, who coaches the team's linebackers. ``He is extremely confident, borderline edgy. ... and quite frankly, you need that on a team when you want to have success. He goes out there expecting to achieve certain things, and he's not afraid to tell you about that. I have no problem with that.''
But some opposing players do.
Barnett got into a verbal confrontation with Detroit Lions center Dominic Raiola before the Packers' Thanksgiving Day victory. And Barnett now wears a shield under his facemask after being poked in the eye by Oakland center Jeremy Newberry two weeks ago.
``Centers don't like me, man,'' Barnett snickered after the Raiders game. ``It's just because they have to deal with me. I'm not saying I'm the greatest player in the world, but when you've got to deal with a guy that's running all over the field making your fat butt tired, I wouldn't like it, either. I might poke myself in the eye.''
Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith, whose team will face the Packers on Sunday, had nothing but good things to say about Barnett.
``He can run and he'll hit, and he's a leader of their team,'' Smith said. ``You want a guy like that in the huddle, giving the signals to the rest of the defense.''
But when asked if he thought his offensive players would agree, Smith punted.
``You asked me my opinion, now you have to ask them about theirs,'' Smith said.
Poppinga said Barnett plays hard, and that sometimes gets misinterpreted.
``I know from my own experience, people think you're cheap,'' Poppinga said. ``But it all comes down to playing hard and doing the best you can to try to help the team win, and I don't know how people look at that as being cheap.''
Barnett says his style of play serves a purpose.
``You have to be aggressive and have a little mean streak about you and have a chip on your shoulder if you want to be one of those great defenses,'' Barnett said. ``You look at the guys I look up to at middle linebacker, guys like Ray Lewis in his prime played out there with a chip on his shoulder.''
And while Barnett says he's only one of several leaders on defense, Poppinga said Barnett stands out.
``You come in the locker room before a game, he's dancing around,'' Poppinga said. ``He's been here three hours, or four, already pumped up. He's a guy that you surely rally around, and the energy he brings out on the field gets contagious. It's great.''
Of course, all that bluster wouldn't mean much if Barnett couldn't back it up on the field. But he can.
``I'll put it to you this way: For a guy that's 227 pounds, he plays like he's 250, but he runs like he's 200 pounds,'' Moss said. ``So athletically, he's almost like a strong safety, but physically, he's almost like one of those old-school 3-4 MIKE linebackers.''
His signature stop this season came on a fourth-and-2 play in the fourth quarter of a tight game against Washington, when he stuffed running back Ladell Betts for no gain on a swing pass. The Packers went on to win 17-14.
Barnett's tackle totals have always been high, but now he's making more of an impact.
``In the past, I think he's made a lot of tackles,'' Moss said. ``Now he's making a lot more plays, so it stands out.''
Defensive coordinator Bob Sanders said Barnett is ``on a different level'' this year, and is most impressed with his ability to recognize matchup problems in the passing game and drop back into coverage.
``We're a match team, so some of the things happen quick on him - the transition from run to pass and play-(action) pass,'' Sanders said. ``Some of the situations that he's in that he has to respond to, he's just gotten better and better.''
Packers coach Mike McCarthy said the case could be made for Barnett to be considered the most valuable player on Green Bay's defense.
``I can't say enough positive things about Nick,'' McCarthy said. ``You can make the case that he's the most consistent player on our defense, also. He puts up the numbers week in and week out. I love the energy that he brings to practice. Nick Barnett is a big part of our success.''
Even if the rest of the league hasn't quite recognized it yet - or is holding it against him.
Barnett says he'll go to the Pro Bowl as an alternate if a spot opens up. For now, he's only thinking about the Super Bowl.
``It's not like me going to the Pro Bowl is going to make my life that much better,'' Barnett said. ``Me going to the Super Bowl, or me having my guys look to me as a leader, is way more important.''

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