Brian Marcolini: Texans are a darkhorse AFC team
While much of the media has been focused on the success of NFC teams like the Packers and the 49ers, the AFC has some serious contenders as well.
The primary contenders just played in what could be a telling game, as the Steelers and the Ravens played in Pittsburgh Sunday night. Each team has certain advantages and disadvantages that will affect their paths to Indianapolis and Super Bowl XLVI.
The Ravens have had both their highs (beating the Texans and Jets, as well as the Steelers twice this season) and lows (losing 12-7 to the Jaguars on Monday Night Football). One thing that has been consistent, however, is the Ravens defense. Terrell Suggs, Ed Reed and company lead a defense that is fifth in passing yards allowed (192 yards per game) and third in rushing yards allowed (87 yards per game).
The catalyst for the Ravens is inconsistent quarterback Joe Flacco. If Flacco can play in big games like he has against the Steelers (524 yards, four scores and no interceptions in two games), the Ravens would ease their way through the playoffs. But if Flacco plays like he has in their two losses (less than 200 yards each game, one score and three picks), Baltimore will struggle to make it out of the first round or even to the playoffs at all.
Pittsburgh, though, is quite the opposite. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been on fire, throwing 12 touchdowns and only three interceptions in his past five games, and the defense has been fantastic (as is annually the case).
The biggest problem that the Steelers have faced this season has been the injury bug. Five players have already been placed on injured reserve, and four different linebackers have already missed games, as well as five different offensive linemen. If the Steelers get healthier and overcome the injuries, the entire conference should watch out.
One other team that is a dark horse candidate and could make a run through the playoffs is the Houston Texans. Houston split games against the other two teams above (beating Pittsburgh, losing to Baltimore), and has a dominant rushing attack with the one-two punch of Arian Foster and Ben Tate. The defense has played extremely well, completely differing from past Texans teams. If Houston can handle going to the postseason (they have not gone in nine years as a franchise) and star receiver Andre Johnson can recover from a hamstring injury, they have a shot to go far.
Although no AFC team has been publicized and revered as much as the Packers have, the conference has a fair amount of talent themselves, promising another fantastic Super Bowl.