As the Green Bay Packers march towards perfection and a first round bye in the NFC playoffs, the Houston Texans, Baltimore Ravens, New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers are still gridlocked at 10-3 in the AFC. Their equal records are indicative of each team's relentlessness to give up their spot as the potential top team in the AFC. While each team has had at least one disappointing loss early in the season, they've also started to heat up at the right time. Let's take a look at the top four teams:
New England Patriots
The Patriots have put together five straight wins since losing back to back games against the Steelers and Giants. Although the defense is still statistically the worst in the NFL, it is extremely hard to match the execution of the offense. Tom Brady is well on his way to passing for over 5000 yards despite lacking the threat of a big play receiver like Randy Moss. Regardless of New England's recent lack of success in the playoffs, I find it hard to believe anyone wants their team to make a trip to Foxboro in January.
Then there's the developing story of the heated exchange between Brady and Offensive Coordinator, Bill O'Brien. As much as we all would like to read into this as the beginning of the end to Belichick's regime, the fact of the matter is, most teams go through this over the course of a season. Willie Parker complaining about not getting the ball in 2008 didn't seem to stop the Steelers; Keyshawn Johnson's tirade against Jon Gruden on Monday Night Football didn't stop the 2002 Buccaneers either. The Patriots are fine and with an easy schedule ahead of them (Broncos, Dolphins and Bills), it is entirely possible they will be the top seed by the end of the month.
No Matt Schaub? No problem! TJ Yates led a comeback win against the Cincinnati Bengals, bringing Houston's win streak to seven games. With Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart out for the year, the Texans will need to rely on the rookie from North Carolina in the franchise's first playoffs. They should also get all-world wide receiver Andre Johnson back from a hamstring injury in the divisional round. Looking past the quarterback, the Texans have one of the best offensive lines to block for one of the elite running backs in the league. Houston is second in the league in rushing behind the Denver Tim Tebows, while their defense is ranked first overall in fewest yards allowed. In essence, they play solid "Bill Cowher" football despite playing indoors. Then again, we all remember how Bill Cowher fared during his coaching tenure with the Steelers in the playoffs. The NFL is a passing league more than ever and it seems illogical to believe a rookie quarterback can bring the Texans to the promise land. Then again, their final three games against the Panthers, Colts and Titans don't exactly hinder their chances of going 13-3.
The Ravens are 2-0 against the Steelers and 0-3 after dousing their coach with Gatorade. Still, the Ravens have quietly won four in a row without the help of Ray Lewis. The offense seems to have figured out that their best chance to win is to give Ray Rice the ball at least twenty times a game. After losing to the Seattle Seahawks, in which Rice only received five carries, the Ravens have given the fourth year running back at least twenty carries in the last four games. The result? Not only has Ray Rice racked up 470 yards, the Ravens have won in convincing fashion each time. With the Steelers in their regular season rear view mirror, the Ravens can clinch an AFC North division title for the first time since 2006. That would also give them at least one game at home where the Ravens are 7-0 this season.
Still, of the four 10-3 teams, the Ravens have the hardest remaining schedule. While they are 7-0 at home, they are 3-3 on the road with some ugly losses to Jacksonville, Tennessee and Seattle. Other than the Browns at home, the Ravens face two teams that are desperately trying to fight for a playoff spot in the Chargers and Bengals. Both of those games will be on the road and the Ravens will face San Diego on Sunday Night Football.
Since their heartbreaking loss to Baltimore in week 9, the Steelers have "stacked" four straight wins and are doing their best to keep even pace with the Ravens. Of all the playoff teams, the Steelers will need a bye week the most, given their veteran defense and hobbled quarterback. If you want to know how desperate this team is, just watch last Thursday's game against the Cleveland Browns when Ben Roethlisberger played the entire second half on a high ankle sprain. With ten days to rest, you better believe Big Ben will be ready to go on Monday Night Football against the San Fransisco 49ers. That does not take away from the fact that the most important piece to Pittsburgh's chances of winning another Super Bowl has a serious injury that could hinder him throughout the playoffs.
The Steelers started out struggling against the run and appeared to look over the hill. But, since September they have regrouped to rank sixth in rush defense while ranking first in pass defense. The most alarming aspect of their turnaround against the pass is that they are using the same players as last year. Ike Taylor is having a Pro-Bowl year while William Gay and Keenan Lewis have been solid at the other corner position. If the Ravens allow Pittsburgh an extra week off to rest, it could be bye-bye birdies for the third straight time. First, the Steelers have to get past a tough San Fransisco team on the road. After that, it is two cupcake match ups against the Browns and Rams.
If the playoffs started today, the seedings would go as follows:
3) Patriots vs. 6) Jets
4)Tebows vs. 5) Steelers
The Texans are ahead of the Ravens due to conference record (8-2 vs. 7-2).
The Ravens are ahead of the Patriots due to a better record in "common games" (4-0 vs 3-1).
For the Steelers to get a first round bye, they need the Ravens to win one less game. Assuming the Texans and Patriots win out, the Steelers would get the 2nd seed due to their win over the Patriots and loss to the Texans. To get the top seed in the AFC, the Texans AND Ravens both need to lose.