DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 18: Quarterback Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots high-fives Head Coach Bill Belichick after scoring touchdown in the third quarter against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on December 18, 2011 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
The AFC playoff picture got a little clearer in Week 15 but we're still not sure who the best team in the conference is. Your candidates are the Patriots, Steelers, Ravens and Texans. Which team has the best chance for a deep run in the playoffs?
Week 15 delighted the senses and tickled the fancies. This was one of the better weekends in the NFL, a decent slate of prime time games, upsets, comebacks, the Colts won and the Tim Tebow narrative changed. Leaving aside the space oddity in the AFC West, one of the more interesting things to happen this week was a further sorting of the seeds at the top of the AFC.
Four teams in the AFC owned 10-3 records prior to Week 15. Three of those teams, the Houston Texans, Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens, lost last weekend. New England, the week's winner, has home field advantage at the moment.
Which of these four teams is the best?
The case for: They're good. Sunday's game not withstanding, the Texans rank in top 10 both offensively and defensively. Houston ranks in the top 10 in both categories despite losing pass rusher Mario Williams for the season and Andre Johnson for the better part of it. Signing cornerback Johnathan Joseph was the most important free agent move of the offseason. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips was missed on the sidelines yesterday, but he will return in time for the postseason.
The case against: T.J. Yates is their quarterback.
Toughest potential playoff matchup: Baltimore Ravens. Houston is capable of playing a close game against almost any entrant in the AFC, but it would awfully tough for them to over come the Ravens' defense, providing the Ravens were playing at the high level they're capable of playing.
The case for: Their defense is capable of shutting teams down.
The case against: It's hard to trust the offense to make the plays it needs to make.
Toughest potential playoff matchup: Pittsburgh Steelers. The Ravens never looked better than when they beat the Steelers twice during the regular season. I don't think they could win two out of three. Dick LeBeau's defense could control Flacco and the Ravens' schizophrenic offense. Pittsburgh's offense is efficient enough to win a slug-fest.
The case for: Tom Brady leads an offense that can score 35 points on a bad day. If the Packers' championship taught us anything last year, it's that a precision offense can win big games. New England lacks that all-world wide receiver like Calvin Johnson, but they have such a diverse array of weapons to create mismatches versus any defense. Denver shut down Rob Gronkowski, so Aaron Hernandez filled the void. They also don't turn the ball over very much; Brady has just one interception in his last six games.
The case against: Bill Belichick's defensive playbook this season devotes an entire section to smoke and mirrors. If an opponent can force the offense into a couple turnovers, they can add the points to shift the balance.
Toughest potential playoff matchup: Green Bay Packers. I think the Ravens could give New England trouble, with a game plan similar to the one the Giants used to beat the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. The stiffest test, however, would be the Packers, the one team with an offense that can match, and probably outscore, the Patriots. Green Bay's defense also creates turnovers, which the offense would likely convert into even more points.
The case for: Some of the more scientifically inclined among us might cringe to hear it, but savvy counts for something. The Steelers can draw up the Xs and Os and needed to win a game, and they have the players to execute it. The defense can battle it out against any team; only four teams have scored 20 or more points against them. On the other side of the ball, what they lack in showiness they make up for with efficiency.
The case against: Health is a big question for this team heading into the playoffs. Ben Roethlisberger has a bad wheel, so does center Maurkice Pouncey. Another question I have is whether or not the defense can withstand a grinding rushing attack, the kind Houston used to beat them earlier in the season.
Toughest potential playoff matchup: Houston Texans. This is more of stretch now with a rookie quarterback facing this defense. However, Arian Foster ripped them for 155 rushing yards back in Week 4, exposing their biggest weakness. Houston will also have Andre Johnson back for the playoffs. The Texans defense would give them a tough matchup, even without Mario Williams, who had two sacks the last time these teams played.
So which of these four teams is the best? Sorry to disappoint, but I'm taking the easy way out of this, and for good reason. Every one of these teams can play its way to the Super Bowl. All four are very good, but hardly flawless. January looks promising if you enjoy great games.