If the race for the NFC title looks more like a coronation for Green Bay, the AFC race is wide-open. Four teams are sitting on 10-3. The Notebook takes a look at the AFC’s Big Four…
New England (10-3): The Patriots are pretty much a known commodity at this time. Tom Brady executes the offense with skilled precision and the defense can be had. The latter point has been drawing frequent attention throughout the season and the Pats are being dismissed as a serious championship contender because of it. The criticisms are fair enough—this unit ranks 10th in the 16-team AFC in allowing points, and the pass-defense is second-worst in the conference. But they will get a healthy Devin McCourty back and they are closer to middle of the conference in terms of getting sacks. Andre Carter has knocked the quarterback down ten times this season. If you combine that, with Bill Belichick’s tactical ability and the possibility that the Pats could play two playoff games in Foxboro with less than ideal conditions for throwing the ball and the defense could survive. And if you got to the Super Bowl against Green Bay (or for that matter New Orleans), is anyone going to discount Belichick’s ability to put something together with two weeks to prepare? I’m not saying the Patriots’ problems aren’t real and its imperative they get homefield advantage, because you don’t want to expose that secondary to a climate-controlled environment like Houston. But maybe we shouldn’t dismiss them as a regular season wonder too quickly.
Baltimore (10-3): Baltimore is tied with Pittsburgh in the AFC North, but holds the tiebreaker, so even if they lose a road game at either San Diego or Cincinnati, they might still escape with the division title if Pittsburgh loses in San Francisco on Monday Night. The Ravens look like the most complete team in the AFC. The defense is its usual stout self, dominant against both the run and pass, and with an ability to harass the quarterback. John Harbaugh has a decision to make in how to handle Ray Lewis’ foot injury. You can’t be cavalier about the need to win the division and get at least a first-round bye, as the Ravens’ recent playoff history has been marked by having to go on the road too many times. But you certainly want Lewis healthy in January. With a power running back in Ray Rice, along with a solid receiver combo of Anquan Boldin and Torrey Smith, I see no reason to change my preseason choice of the Ravens to make it to Indianapolis.
Pittsburgh (10-3): The aforementioned Monday Night visit to Frisco will take place without James Harrison after his suspension by the NFL and it may take place without Ben Roethlisberger, nursing his ankle injury. I would imagine Big Ben will play as that always seems to be how these injury reports with him end up. But it underscores the problem that the Steelers are playing a game that’s must-win for their division title hopes and will be shorthanded and wounded. Roethlisberger carries a below average running game and without him, Pittsburgh is just a team that can’t control the line of scrimmage and can’t protect is quarterback. Add to that the absence of Harrison and the defense’s ability to carry the team will be limited. Terrific coaching job by Mike Tomlin this season, but the Steelers’ shortcomings still make it impossible for me to see this as a Super Bowl team. Then again, I could barely see them as a playoff team in September and they proved me wrong, so we’ll see what else the head coach has in his bag of tricks.
Houston (10-3): The only reason Tomlin can’t be AFC Coach of the Year, is that Gary Kubiak has to get the honor. Just for hiring Wade Phillips to be the defensive coordinator is reason enough and then beating both Atlanta and Cincinnati with a third-string rookie quarterback in T.J. Yates seals the deal. The injury to Matt Schaub is really unfortunate, because if the Texans can throw the ball, then they, and not Baltimore are the most complete team in the conference. The 1-2 running punch of Arian Foster and Ben Tate is dynamite. Tight end Owen Daniels enables a short passing game to control tempo. The health of Andre Johnson’s hamstring will be important and Kubiak is another coach with a decision to make—push Johnson hard in an attempt to get the #1 seed, or make sure the nagging injury is healthy next month. Defensively, Kubiak and Phillips have made due without defensive end Mario Williams and have turned one of the game’s worst pass defenses into one of its best. They run the ball, they play defense, they’ve got a game-breaking receiver and a solid tight end. If they have someone who can deliver them the ball, we’re talking Super Bowl—and a team good enough to beat Green Bay.
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