Monday Night Football visits Jacksonville's EverBank Field this week for an 8:30 PM game between the visiting Baltimore Ravens and the home-standing Jaguars. The early NFL odds favor the Ravens by -9 1/2 points.
Along with New England, the point is arguable that the Ravens are the class of the AFC. They demonstrated their dominance this past Sunday with a 29-14 win over Houston, and the 15-point margin of victory is misleading, since it very easily could have been much worse. QB Joe Flacco continues to mature and display splendid game management skills as well as showing he can throw the ball downfield, something he rarely did in his first few seasons. Against the Texans, Flacco connected on 20 of 33 pass attempts for 305 yards, while RB Ray Rice galloped for 101 of the team total of 113 yards. The Ravens have been criticized in recent seasons for their lack of originality on offense, but 2011 has been different. Baltimore is averaging 245 yards per game passing and 121 yards rushing per game, admirable balance for any team. Combine that balance with what is probably the NFL's best overall defense, and you have a tough-to-beat combination. Toss in WRs Anquan Boldin and rookie Torrey Smith, as well as TE Ed Dickson, and there are no obvious "weak links."
Speaking of the defense, team spiritual leader and future Hall of Famer LB Ray Lewis recorded a sack against Houston, the 40th of his career. That figure, and his 30 career interceptions, make him the first player in NFL history to attain those numbers. But Lewis is far from being the entire unit. Nose tackle Haloti Ngata, LBs Terrell Suggs and Jameel McClain, as well as CB Ladarius Webb and S Ed Reed, another player who is bound for Canton some day, are all All-Pro caliber or at least should be. Along with Green Bay and Pittsburgh, the Ravens defense is capable of totally dominating games.
If Minnesota is the poster child for offensive ineptitude in the NFC, Jacksonville is in the conversation (along with Miami) as the AFC's representative for that dubious distinction. With a rookie QB (Blaine Gabbert), two WRs that would be hard-pressed to start on any other NFL squad (Mike Thomas, Jason Hill), and a rebuilding offensive line, the points are difficult to come by. If not for RB Maurice Jones-Drew, the Jaguars would be going through punters like water, because they'd be needed a dozen times or more per game. Gabbert is learning on the fly, which may bear fruit some day, but not anytime soon. Jones-Drew is absolutely the only weapon the team has offensively, and when you're relying on an overworked, diminutive (5'7 208 lbs.) RB for the vast majority of your offense, trouble awaits.
Defensively, the Jaguars hang their collective hats on a talented secondary, led by CB Rasean Mathis and S Dawan Landry. Other than LB Paul Posluszny, the remaining Jacksonville defensive unit is relatively faceless and unproven. Head coach Jack Del Rio, understandably rumored to be on the proverbial "hot seat," needs players, lots of them, to turn this shipwreck around. At best, 4 wins from this team should be cause for a mini-celebration. With 2 upcoming games against winless Indianapolis, there isn't much more to look forward to in 2011.
With Joe Flacco quickly becoming a more mature and vocal on-field leader, and as long as Lewis, Reed and Co. roam the defensive side, the Ravens should be at least favored in every game they have remaining. Other than a major injury to a key player, nothing appears to be able to slow this team down, certainly not the Jacksonville Jaguars. As for the Jaguars, they can only hope Jones-Drew stays healthy, and that Gabbert's confidence doesn't become so wrecked by the end of the season that his future is jeopardized. Del Rio has had a decent stint as Jags coach, but unfortunately, the fans memories tend to be short ones, and the calls for a new coach have already begun.
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