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Preston: Old-school Jaguars will be the toughest out in the AFC

The New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers are the favorites to play in the AFC championship game in a few weeks, but the best team might be the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The Jaguars (10-4) are scary good.

They have the NFL’s top defense and rushing attack, a combination that is still the best, though some consider it outdated, formula for winning the Super Bowl. The Jaguars are balanced, and the team with the fewest weaknesses usually prevails.

The Ravens?

They’ve been inconsistent all season but have a legitimate chance because of their outstanding special teams, good defense and sound running game. Now, if they could ever find a vertical passing game …

Hopefully, the Ravens (8-6) don’t have to play Jacksonville until late in the postseason. There’s a good possibility the Ravens will end up being the fifth-seeded wild card and play the Kansas City Chiefs (8-6) on the road in a first-round game.

The Ravens are currently the seventh seed behind the Buffalo Bills (8-6) and Tennessee Titans (8-6), but those teams won’t win out. The Bills still have to travel to the New England Patriots (11-3) and Miami Dolphins (6-8), while the Titans host the Los Angeles Rams (10-4) and Jaguars.

As for the Ravens, they host two of the six AFC teams that have already been eliminated from the postseason — the Indianapolis Colts (3-11) and Cincinnati Bengals (5-9). It doesn’t get much easier. The football gods have smiled upon the Ravens, and they will be given an added blessing if the Ravens play the Chiefs and not Jacksonville in the opening round.

Kansas City has a lot of offensive weapons. The Chiefs have a good, yet unspectacular , quarterback in Alex Smith. They have great speed in running back Kareem Hunt (242 carries, 1,201 yards, six touchdowns) and receivers Tyreek Hill (69 receptions, 1,074 yards, seven touchdowns) and Travis Kelce (79 receptions, 991 yards).

But they remind me of a lot of the old Denver Broncos teams that had a lot of fluff but no substance. They score a lot of points (25.6 per game) but also allow a lot (21.6). They are soft on defense, and that’s where the Ravens can pound Kanas City and wear the Chiefs down.

Playing on the road shouldn’t be a problem for the Ravens this season. They were 4-4 in opposing cities in 2017. Granted, those wins came against Cincinnati, the Oakland Raiders, the Green Bay Packers and the Cleveland Browns, but that’s better than the 2-6 road records they had in each of the previous two seasons.

It’s not as if Ravens coach John Harbaugh found a magic potion, but this group just finds ways to win games. The Ravens don’t fear playing New England in Foxborough, Mass., or the Steelers in Pittsburgh.

They’ve been there, done that and won. Both Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Patriots quarterbackTom Brady have taken the Ravens apart at times, but the Ravens still have a reasonable chance to win. They are familiar with both teams and their systems, and there is no fear factor.

But Jacksonville is different. The Jaguars crushed the Ravens, 44-7, in London on Sept. 24. They proved that game wasn’t a fluke by beating Pittsburgh, 30-9, a couple of weeks later.

Offensively, the Ravens can’t match up with the Jaguars defense, which is allowing only 14.9 points and 168.9 passing yards per game. This group is young, and linebackers such as Telvin Smith, Myles Jack and Paul Posluszny fly to the ball.

The Jaguars are averaging 149.1 rushing yards and are led by big rookie running back Leonard Fournette, who has 923 yards on 231 carries. If the Jaguars get a lead, it is hard to come back on them because they have two good cornerbacks in Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye and a standout strong safety in Barry Church.

There are some concerns about Jacksonville’s lack of playoff experience especially quarterback Blake Bortles. There have been times this season when the Jaguars have had meltdowns on defense because of their overaggressiveness.

But they are young and have nothing to lose. They play with a certain recklessness. New England and Pittsburgh have their share of star players, and the Ravens play with a strong work ethic and attitude.

But the Jaguars are old school. They have a great defense and strong running game. They will be the tough out.

Tougher than any other team in the AFC.

mike.preston@baltsun.com

twitter.com/MikePrestonSun

 

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