5 AFC Teams Who Stand Between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Super Bowl

Todd Swoope@ToddSwoopeContributor IIIApril 11, 2012

5 AFC Teams Who Stand Between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Super Bowl

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    With the NFL Draft quickly approaching, most people focus on the upcoming prospects and whether or not they will become stars at the next level; they tend to neglect the current stars of the league and the teams they come from.

    While it's debatable which conference is better, AFC or NFC, the Pittsburgh Steelers will almost certainly have to face some of the best teams in the league in order to make it to Super Bowl XLVII.

    Here are the top five teams the Pittsburgh Steelers will or may have to face in order to make it back to the big game.

5. Cincinnati Bengals

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    The Cincinnati Bengals were one of the youngest teams last year and surprised the entire league when they finished the season at 9-7 and earned a wild-card playoff berth.

    Much of the Bengals' success can be attributed to the wealth of young talent that the team acquired in last year's draft. With the emergence of Andy Dalton at quarterback and A.J. Green at receiver, Cincinnati had a franchise quarterback and an All-Pro to be wide receiver.

    With a defense that finished ninth in the league in scoring, but only 17th in takeaways, the Bengal defense will continue to improve under defensive coordinator, Mike Zimmer.

    The offensive line was one of the better units in football, Andre Smith finally started living up to being a high first-round draft choice and Andrew Whitworth was arguably a Pro Bowl-caliber tackle.

    Adding to the young influx of talent will be the opportunity to bring in more young players during this April's draft. The Bengals hold two first-round picks, 17th and 21st, so they will be sure to fill in some positions of need like cornerback and the interior offensive line.

4. Houston Texans

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    The Houston Texans took advantage of a Peyton Manning-less AFC South last season and captured their first ever division title and playoff win.

    The Texans finished the season at 10-6 and beat the Bengals in the Wild Card Round before losing to the Baltimore Ravens. This was impressive for a team who had never been to the playoffs before, even more so when you consider the fact that they did it behind rookie quarterback T.J. Yates.

    Next season the team will have Matt Shaub back at the helm, and barring an injury, he will make the team a contender. Shaub and Andre Johnson have always been one of the most consistent and dangerous tandems in the NFL. Add in running back Arian Foster and you have a dangerous three-headed-monster in Houston.

    But with every gain comes loss, as defensive end Mario Williams left the team to head to Buffalo and linebacker DeMeco Ryans was traded to the Eagles. This certainly presents a problem for a defense that improved considerably under first-year defensive coordinator, Wade Phillips.

    Even with the losses, Houston is still one of the more dangerous teams in the league because of their offensive weapons and a defense that can keep them in games. They will only get better after the draft and should be a team to watch out for.

3. Denver Broncos

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    A month ago, the Denver Broncos wouldn't have even made this list. Enter Peyton Manning. After acquiring the most highly touted free-agent in NFL history, the Broncos went from wondering if they would make the playoffs again, to wondering if they will win the Super Bowl.

    Peyton Manning inherits a team that owned the No. 1 rushing attack in the league last year, all the while having a dismal Tim Tebow powered passing game. This offense will be much more dangerous this coming season.

    With Manning leading the attack through the air, defenses won't be able to load the box to stop the run. With Demaryius Thomas emerging as a possible star and Eric Decker being a solid slot receiver (under Tebow's arm no less), the Broncos' receiving corps should see a huge jump in production.

    The revolving door at running back might be an issue with Willis McGahee and Knowshon Moreno splitting carries during the season, but that's a situation that can possibly be remedied during the draft.

    The reason the team made the playoffs last year was the defense. The unit played its best down the stretch by holding teams to low scores and should be able to do the same thing this season.

    The only reason this team isn't higher on this list is that it's difficult for a quarterback to come off the street and be perfectly in sync with his new team. It's difficult for even the great Peyton Manning.

2. Baltimore Ravens

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    The team that won the AFC North last year and swept the Steelers during the regular season comes in at the four spot.

    The Baltimore Ravens finished the season by losing to New England in the AFC Championship Game because of a dropped pass in the end zone and a wide left kick. Had either of those things happened differently, they'd have been in the Super Bowl and we might have had a different champion.

    The game of football is never picture perfect, however, and that brings us to now. The Ravens were hit very hard by the offseason, losing free agents Ben Grubbs and Jarret Johnson, and Ray Rice and Joe Flacco are both unhappy with their current contract situations.

    As it currently sits though, Flacco is still one of the most consistent quarterbacks in the league and along with with Ray Rice and Anquan Boldin, form a dangerous offensive trinity. While they could use upgrades at wide receiver and along the interior of the offensive line, this is hardly a huge problem.

    The defense is just as solid as ever led by the ageless Ray Lewis, safety Ed Reed and defensive tackle Haloti Ngata. While Reed and Lewis are starting to get up there in age, neither seems to be slowing down, and will help anchor a defense that finished third in the NFL.

1. New Egland Patriots

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    There is a reason that the New England Patriots have been to five Super Bowls in the last decade and won three of them. Their names are Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. As long as these two are in town, the Patriots will continue to be Super Bowl favorites, year in, year out.

    The Patriots roster didn't change too much since last year, with most of the core from last year's Super Bowl-qualifying team returning. The big addition this offseason is wide receiver Brandon Lloyd, who can fill the deep-threat void that was created when Randy Moss was traded away.

    Besides Lloyd, New England still has All-Pro receiver Wes Welker and All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski. They also have tight end Aaron Hernandez. The weapons are there. With Benjarvus Green-Ellis leaving for Cincinnati, Steven Ridley looks to be the starter for next season.

    The defense was a glaring weakness on an otherwise powerhouse team. They finished 15th in points allowed, but 31st in total yardage. This from a team whose head coach is a defensive-minded guy. They will obviously be looking to shore up the defense through the draft in April.

    Even with this problem, New England is still the team to beat in the AFC. They are the reigning AFC champions, have arguably the best quarterback in the league and are led by one of the best coaches.