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Preston: Ravens have their share of weaknesses, but no team in the AFC is more balanced

Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson talks about beating the Buffalo Bills and clinching a playoff berth.

As the season winds down, there is more of an appreciation for the Ravens. And not just because of their greatness, but for their balance, which is separating them from the rest of the AFC.

The Ravens have had a strong offense since the first game of the season, but were ranked No. 27 in overall defense after four games. Now, they are ranked No. 2 in offense and No. 6 in total defense. That’s a tough combination to beat, especially in the NFL, which prides itself on parity. It’s why the Ravens are favored to win the AFC title.

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Oh, the Ravens have their share of weaknesses. They don’t have a legitimate No. 1 receiver, and their top-ranked run offense is somewhat misleading because of the designed runs and scrambles by quarterback Lamar Jackson.

On defense, both the San Francisco 49ers and the Buffalo Bills were able to run off-tackle successfully against them, and there are concerns in pass defense as far as quarterback pressure and coverage in the deep third of the field.

But the Ravens don’t have glaring, overwhelming problems that hurt them consistently every week. For the second straight year, the Kansas City Chiefs virtually have no defense. The New England Patriots don’t have a deep receiving threat, which is why quarterback Tom Brady is seen whining every week on national television.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have a good defense, but a rookie quarterback in Devlin Hodges leading their 28th-ranked offense. The Houston Texans have a severe case of schizophrenia. On any given Sunday, no one knows if they will be the Texans who beat the Patriots, 28-22, on Dec. 1, or the Texans who lost to the Denver Broncos and rookie quarterback Drew Lock, 38-24, on Sunday.

Buffalo? The Bills have a weak offensive line and Josh Allen is their quarterback. Enough said.

Despite their weaknesses, there is no guarantee that the Ravens will go deep into the playoffs. The postseason is a one-game season in which penalties and turnovers can cause a quick elimination.

But overall team balance is still a major a key. Except for Jackson, the Ravens don’t have any superstars on offense. Everything is centered on his talents as a dual-threat runner and passer, including the blocking scheme.

The Ravens rely on the inside running of halfback Mark Ingram II, and the passing game is basically safe short-to-intermediate routes in which the tight ends are the favored targets. The Ravens get an occasional big play from speedy receiver Marquise Brown off crossing routes, quick screens and slants.

Defensively, the Ravens can shut down most running games because of tackles Michael Pierce and Brandon Williams. They struggle getting pressure on quarterbacks, but most teams in the NFL have suspect offensive lines. To compensate, defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale uses an assortment of blitzes and pressures. They don’t work all the time, but enough to make the Ravens effective, especially with talented cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters, who can play press coverage, patrolling the secondary.

But one thing that has stood out about the Ravens on defense in recent weeks is good, old-fashioned hustle. They don’t stay blocked, and you’re now seeing big men like Williams and outside linebacker Matthew Judon making tackles 15 to 20 yards downfield.

That means they have bought in.

The Ravens have chemistry, but it isn’t just about personalities. It’s about coaching and structure and the desire to succeed and win.

It’s about balance, and the Ravens are more balanced than any team in the AFC right now. Even the 49ers, who rank fourth on offense and second on defense, couldn’t beat them.

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