There are a number of teams tied for third in the AFC at 3-3, including the New England Patriots, Denver Broncos, San Diego Chargers, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, Cincinnati Bengals and Buffalo Bills. The Pittsburgh Steelers and Indianapolis Colts are also in the mix at 2-3.
The Texans and Ravens currently stand alone atop a weak conference, but are they likely to meet in the AFC Championship game come January?
They have the talent and experience to get there, but injuries and a couple teams led by future Hall of Famers could get in the way.
Talent and Experience
The Texans and Ravens are among the NFL’s most balanced teams. The Texans are fifth in the league in points per game, while the Ravens are a respectable ninth. On the defensive side of the ball, the Texans rank eighth, allowing an average of 19.2 points per game, and the Ravens aren’t far behind in 11th, allowing 19.7 points per game.
Quarterbacks Matt Schaub and Joe Flacco are off to similar starts statistically this season. In six games, Schaub has thrown for 1,394 yards, eight touchdowns, four interceptions and registered a passer rating of 91.6. Flacco has thrown for 1,690 yards, eight touchdowns, four interceptions and registered a passer rating of 92.0.
Arian Foster and Ray Rice are once again among the best running backs in the NFL. Arian Foster is tied for the league lead with 591 yards rushing and leads all RBs with seven touchdowns. Ray Rice continues to be effective both rushing and receiving. Rice has 482 yards on the ground, 233 yards receiving and five total touchdowns.
The Texans defense has been dominant since former Dallas Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips took over as defensive coordinator. They are currently ranked sixth in the NFL with 300.8 yards allowed per game. J.J. Watt has been the key to the pass rush with a league best 9.5 sacks to go along with his 32 tackles.
The Baltimore defense is nowhere near as dominant as it was in years past, giving up an average of 396.7 yards per game. However, if they can continue to allow less than 20 points per game, a deep playoff run is certainly possible. Remember that the Patriots allowed just over 410 yards per game last season, which was 31st in the NFL.
The Patriots reached the Super Bowl after knocking off the Ravens, who were making their second AFC Championship appearance in four years. The Texans won the AFC South and made the postseason for the first time in franchise history in 2011.
The Texans eliminated the Cincinnati Bengals in the Wild Card round, but they fell to the Ravens in Divisional round by a score of 20-13. Third-string QB T.J. Yates was at the helm for the Texans after both Matt Schaub and Matt Leinart went down with injuries earlier in the season.
Injuries and the Competition
The Texans and Ravens are already being impacted by injuries, which could hurt their chances of making it to the AFC Championship.
The Texans lost star linebacker Brian Cushing for the season after he tore his ACL against the Jets. He will be sorely missed, especially when the Texans face strong offenses like the Lions and Patriots. Cushing led the Texans with 29 tackles when he went out in Week 6.
The Ravens have lost future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis and standout cornerback Lardarius Webb. Lewis was thought to be lost for the season after tearing his right triceps. However, he has been placed on injured reserve with the "designated to return tag." So there is still a slim chance he returns late in the season. Like Cushing, Webb tore his ACL and will be out for the remainder of the season. Also, it’s important to remember that Terrell Suggs will return within a couple weeks.
Injuries aside, the Texans and Ravens still have to qualify for the postseason and win at least one playoff game to make the AFC Championship. There are still 11 weeks to go in the regular season for 3-3 teams like the Patriots and Broncos to improve.
Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the Patriots should never be counted out, regardless of what their record indicates. They have the best offense in the NFL, averaging over 445 yards and 31 points per game. As long as the offensive line stays healthy and Brady has Wes Welker, Brandon Lloyd, Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, the Patriots will always be a tough out in the postseason.
The Denver Broncos will likely continue to improve as the offense gels. Peyton Manning led the Broncos to a historic comeback on Monday Night Football earlier in the week by overcoming a 24-point deficit at halftime. The defensive mind of John Fox and Manning’s ability to direct the offense could be a deadly combination come playoff time.
While there are other teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers who could make a dent in the postseason, these are the teams that stand out in the jumbled mess that is the AFC standings after Week 6.
The Texans and Ravens will both face tough opponents as the season stretches into November and December. The Texans have the Bears, Lions and Patriots, while the Ravens have the Steelers twice, along with the Broncos and Giants.
The Texans have the advantage of an easier division, which they should win easily. The Ravens will be in tough, as always, in the AFC North.
Yes, this week’s matchup could be a preview of the AFC Championship, but with more than half the season to go, a lot can change. At the very least, both of these teams should still be playing football come January.
For now, it’s a regular season game in October between the AFC’s top teams.