And Down The Stretch, AFC Style
As has been well document, the American Football Conference has been dominated for the last 10 years or so by the Patriots, Steelers and Colts, the trio combining for 9 of the conference’s 10 Super Bowl appearances since 2001. And if you go back one year earlier, the Ravens represented the AFC and would go onto win Super Bowl XXXV at Tampa.
These days, there’s an interesting battle going on in that same conference and something we haven’t seen in quite some time. With 3 weeks to play, the Texans (on their way to the playoffs for the first time), Patriots, Ravens and Steelers are all 10-3. It marks the first time since 2004 that 4 teams in the same conference had won at least 10 games with 3 weeks remaining. That year, New England and Pittsburgh were both 12-1 and the Colts and Chargers 10-3. When the smoke cleared, the 14-2 Patriots defeated the 15-1 Steelers at Heinz Field on their way to defeating the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX.
Back to this season and in particular this week, where the Texans host the entertaining but defensively-challenged 4-9 Panthers. However, the other 3 contenders appear to have big challenges in front of them and all of them on the road. Sunday afternoon at Denver, QB Tom Brady and the Patriots hope to cool off QB Tim Tebow and the red-hot Broncos. Later that evening at San Diego, the Ravens battle the Chargers and Norv Turner’s team is in the midst of its usual strong stretch run. And the proverbial cherry on the sundae comes Monday night when the Steelers (with or without QB Ben Roethlisberger and definitely without OLB James Harrison) face the NFC West champion 49ers at San Francisco.
Now trying to forecast predictions for all 4 games, much less the next 3 weeks, isn’t easy. But we could not only find out who emerges as the frontrunner in the AFC North race but the conference. Of course, having homefield advantage isn’t the beat all, end all (just ask the Patriots last season) but it certainly doesn’t hurt. If you’re Gary Kubiak’s club and you’re heading to the postseason for the first time and with a rookie quarterback, you need all the help you can get. For the Patriots, Ravens and Steelers, these are seasoned teams with playoff-tested quarterbacks. All 4 teams have definitive strengths and weaknesses, which is what is making this face all the more interesting.
So how does this all shake out? Are we ready for the top-seeded Texans, or will one of the other powerhouses grab the spot? And when it’s all said it done, will it really matter anyway with the successful of the wild card teams in the playoffs as of late. It’s going to be an interesting ride…