Steelers, Ravens, Patriots Among AFC Contenders, But Conference Has No Clear-Cut Top Team

Steelers, Ravens, Patriots Among AFC Contenders, But Conference Has No Clear-Cut Top TeamIn recent years, the AFC has seen its share of teams dominate the league, making a case to be favorites coming into the postseason.

In 2007 that label went to the Patriots after their remarkable regular season. The Titans were tops in 2008 behind Chris Johnson, who had a breakout year. Peyton Manning's Colts reigned supreme in '09, and for most of last year the Patriots were in control, finishing with a 14-2 record.

Through 11 weeks of the 2011 season, no AFC team has established itself at the top.

It first looked as if the Ravens would make that claim. A playoff team the last three seasons, Baltimore ran out its division rival and last year's AFC Champion, the Pittsburgh Steelers 35-7 in Week 1.

This team has the seventh-best offense in the league and some of the best playmakers in football with Ray Rice and Anquan Boldin as primary targets. Joe Flacco has playoff experience, beating the Patriots on the road in 2009. Nobody is questioning Baltimore on the defensive side of the ball, either, as they are perenially considered one of the best units in the league. They are currently ranked third in the NFL in terms of points allowed.

But after suspect losses to Jacksonville and Seattle, both of which have struggled mightily this season, there are questions as to whether the Ravens can put it all together.

The Texans, who lead the AFC South at 7-3, have won four games in a row, and also beat the Steelers back in the beginning of October. But a foot injury to Matt Schaub will keep the starting quarterback on the sidelines for at least the next few weeks. In the meantime, Matt Leinart will be under center in Houston, which isn't the most exciting circumstance for Texans fans.

The good news for Houston is that its division is pretty weak and its remaining schedule is very favorable. With a game this weekend against the Jaguars and late-season tilts with Carolina and Indianapolis, the Texans should be able to take care of business before finishing up the year with a game against the only other contender for the division, Tennessee.

Ultimately, though, Houston's chances hinge on Schaub's status. Without him, they can kiss their chances of a ring goodbye.

With the victory over Kansas City on Monday night, the Patriots are in control of the AFC East. Now at 7-3, the Pats are comfortably ahead of the Jets, who they have already beaten twice, and Buffalo, which is completely falling apart.

To make things better for New England, its upcoming schedule should not hurt it one bit in its push for the playoffs. The way the records currently stand, the Patriots do not play a team over .500 for the rest of the regular season. The Eagles are next for the Pats, who might be better than their 4-6 record, but Bill Belichick's bunch should be on easy street after that.

Closing the season with weaker teams is good for a franchise that would be happy with winning the division or making the playoffs, but New England has been there and done that. For the Patriots, it's all about the trophy at the end. Not playing a formidable opponent down the stretch may hurt the Patriots as their pieced-together defense could struggle when it gets to the playoffs and sees the best teams in the league.

Finally, the aforementioned Steelers are also 7-3, tied atop the AFC North with Baltimore. Just like the other contenders, the Steelers have won games, but in doing so have shown weaknesses. This team has been there before, going to the Super Bowl last year and winning it all in '05 and '08. But while it deserves to be mentioned with any other team at the top this year, Pittsburgh still has inconsistencies, losing twice to Baltimore, and struggling to run the football. Ranked 16th in rushing yards and 17th in yards per attempt, the Steelers need to be able to move the football more consistently if they are going to make it back to where they were last year.

So who is the favorite in the AFC? Your guess is as good as mine.

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