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Every NFL team has appeared in at least one conference championship game ... except the Houston Texans.

Pittsburgh has been in 15 of them. Dallas and San Francisco have been in 14 each. Conference-hopping Seattle has appeared in both the NFC and AFC title games.

There's a decent chance that could change this season, as Houston has made a slow but recently steady ascent into the rarefied air of the NFL elite.

The Texans, who made their debut in 2002 and are the league's youngest franchise, first made the playoffs in their 10th season and won a 2011 wild-card game against Cincinnati — with little-known rookie T.J. Yates at quarterback — before losing in the divisional round at Baltimore. Last season, the Texans won again in the wild-card round, beating Cincinnati before losing at New England.

So for two years in a row, Houston has been stopped at the doorstep to the doorstep of the Super Bowl, despite winning consecutive AFC South titles. They finished 12-4 last season, and in the top 10 in both offense and defense.

In an AFC that lacks a wealth of powerhouse teams, the time is right for the Texans to finally join the club.

A look at the big questions for the AFC teams, ranked by predicted power:

1. Denver

Can the Broncos live up to the hype?

Last summer, this team was in wait-and-see mode, with everyone wondering how well Peyton Manning would rebound from multiple neck procedures. Well, Manning was runner-up to Adrian Peterson for the most-valuable-player award, and the Broncos' defense was even more potent than its offense. Now, the team has slot receiver Wes Welker to go with outside starters Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker, promise at running back, and a truckload of expectations. They were 13-3 last season, and anything short of the Super Bowl will be a disappointment for the bulk of their fan base.

2. Houston

Andre, check. Now how about DeAndre?

The Texans have long searched for a complement to No. 1 receiver Andre Johnson, among the best in the league. They think they've found one in first-round pick DeAndre Hopkins, who reeled in 18 touchdown passes at Clemson last season and led the Atlantic Coast Conference in receiving. Early reports are that Hopkins has picked up the offense quickly in minicamps, and quarterback Matt Schaub said the rookie doesn't have a "deer in the headlights" look. Well, that's a start.

3. Baltimore

Will the Ravens' defense be better without future Hall of Famers Ray Lewis and Ed Reed?

Baltimore is younger and faster with its new additions, including its best pass-rushing bookend to Terrell Suggs in Elvis Dumervil. Lardarius Webb, the team's best corner, is back after a knee injury sidelined him for the final 10 regular-season games and the playoffs. Suggs, who suffered a torn Achilles tendon and torn biceps last season, has recovered, as has defensive tackle Haloti Ngata (knee). And much is expected of rookie safety Matt Elam, a first-round pick from Florida.

4. New England

Who will be on the other end of Tom Brady's passes?

Wes Welker is in Denver, Rob Gronkowski is recovering from back surgery and likely to miss the start of the season, and Aaron Hernandez is in jail. New England's cast of pass catchers, once among the NFL's most potent, is suddenly looking mighty thin when the season opens. The team's top returning targets from last season are Julian Edelman (21 catches), and running backs Shane Vereen (eight) and Stevan Ridley (six). The addition of Danny Amendola helps, but it doesn't make up for losing 82 percent of last season's receptions.

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5. Pittsburgh

Was last season just a hiccup?

Despite a promising start, the Steelers found themselves in an unfamiliar spot last season — watching the playoffs from their couches. They won six of their first nine games before dropping five of six. Still, they had a chance to sneak into the tournament but lost a Week 16 game to Cincinnati. Factors to watch this season include the potentially combustible relationship between quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and offensive coordinator Todd Haley, and the contrast of the veteran leadership on defense and the relative youth of the skill-position players and offensive line.

6. Cincinnati

Are the Bengals ready for their close-up?

The Bengals are back on "Hard Knocks," and it figures to be a prime showcase for coordinators Mike Zimmer and Jay Gruden, both of whom could be head coaches next season. Marvin Lewis got the benefit of being in that spotlight in 2001, when he was defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens, the first "Hard Knocks" team. Zimmer consistently fields one of the NFL's better defenses. Gruden, younger brother of Jon, is heading into his third season and has what figures to be his best all-around offense. Will that translate into respectable numbers? The Bengals haven't had a top-20 offense in five years.

7. Colts

How good is Chuck Pagano? We know he's a good guy and an inspiration, bravely battling a treatable form of leukemia as the Colts soared to unexpected heights in his absence last season. What we don't know is how much of that success was because of interim coach Bruce Arians, and how much of the credit belongs to Pagano, whose team was 2-3 with him as head coach. Pagano was involved in the game-planning last season, more involved than his doctors wanted him to be, but Arians was the head coach. Now, Arians is head coach of the Arizona Cardinals and Pep Hamilton has replaced him as offensive coordinator, bringing more of a West Coast philosophy to the Colts. Surely, Andrew Luck can handle that transition, but can he and his team continue to raise the bar?

8. San Diego

Can the Chargers rediscover the Philip Rivers of old?

The Chargers have missed the playoffs three years in a row, and Rivers has gone from an elite quarterback to a turnover liability. One of the big reasons for the slide is that San Diego's porous offensive line provided Rivers with precious little protection and forced him to rush passes. The team has upgraded its tackles, adding veteran Max Starks and first-round rookie D.J. Fluker, and the new offensive brain trust — coach Mike McCoy, offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt and quarterbacks coach Frank Reich — is working with Rivers to take advantage of what he does best.

9. Kansas City

Are the Chiefs this season's Colts?

Indianapolis made the playoffs last season, a year removed from going 2-14 and selecting first in the draft. The Chiefs were 2-14 last season, had the first pick in the draft, and could be primed for a similar turnaround. With a new coach (Andy Reid) and new quarterback (Alex Smith), and a roster that includes six Pro Bowl players from last season, Kansas City is in position to be competitive in a division that — other than Denver — is relatively soft.

10. Miami

With an improved supporting cast, can Ryan Tannehill take the next step?

Tannehill had some impressive flashes last season, even though he wasn't as polished as some of the other rookie quarterbacks around the league. We should get a better feel for how good he can be now that the Dolphins have added pass catchers Mike Wallace, Brandon Gibson and Dustin Keller. With the Patriots wobbly, the Dolphins have a chance to build on their 7-9 record and possibly rise to the top of their division. Miami will have a good defense; there's a lot resting on its second-year quarterback.

11. New York Jets

Mark Sanchez or Geno Smith?

It will be one of the most scrutinized position battles in the NFL this summer, with the struggling Sanchez looking to hold on to the No. 1 job and the Jets mulling a fresh start from Smith, a second-round pick from West Virginia. There are questions about Smith's maturity and ability to lead, and Sanchez figures to get a boost from the change at offensive coordinator. Tony Sparano has been replaced by Marty Mornhinweg, whose West Coast system plays to Sanchez's strengths. One possibility is that the Jets could rotate in Smith as a change-of-pace quarterback, sort of the way most thought they would use Tim Tebow last season.

12. Tennessee

Can Gregg Williams reboot his reputation?

Williams is thinner and has a new goatee to match his hipster glasses, but the former New Orleans defensive coordinator — disgraced for his role in the bounty scandal — still has that edge. "Never, ever apologize for competing," he told USA Today recently. "We want to be as attacking as we can on defense. And we want to be able to set the tone against who we play against." Williams, a defensive assistant to coordinator Jerry Gray, does have a way of instilling toughness. As long as Williams, a defensive assistant to coordinator Jerry Gray, plays by the rules, — and everything points to his doing that — the Titans' defense will reap the benefits.

13. Jacksonville

How much workload can Maurice Jones-Drew handle?

Jones-Drew held out of training camp last summer, then suffered a broken foot in Week 7 that ended his season. The ground game was affected in a big way, with the Jaguars finishing 30th in yards rushing per game and attempts, and 29th with five rushing touchdowns. Jones-Drew, the 2011 NFL rushing champion, looks as if he'll be ready for light duty at the start of camp and, if all goes well, will be a linchpin in that offense.

14. Buffalo

Was the surprise move the right move?

The Bills took the first quarterback in the draft, using the 16th pick on Florida State's EJ Manuel. That was a stunner, because few people predicted he would be the first quarterback off the board. Now, the starting job is an open competition between Manuel and Kevin Kolb, and the two have split repetitions so far. New coach Doug Marrone hasn't indicated which way he's leaning, but he has said it will become very obvious at training camp who the starter will be.

15. Oakland

Do the Raiders finally have a solid secondary, or just a M*A*S*H unit?

The team used the 12th pick on cornerback D.J. Hayden, who nearly died from a freak on-field injury in college. They signed cornerback Tracy Porter, who suffered a seizure while playing for Denver. And they welcomed back defensive back Charles Woodson, who will turn 37 in October. If all goes well for Oakland, the back end of its defense will be vastly improved. The Raiders will keep their fingers crossed.

16. Cleveland

Can someone rescue this franchise?

The Browns have made the playoffs once since returning to Cleveland in 1999, and have tried all sorts of ways to jolt themselves from their doldrums. Maybe the latest sweeping changes — a new head coach in Rob Chudzinski, and new coordinators in Norv Turner (offensive) and Ray Horton (defensive) — will help do the trick. Cleveland has averaged fewer than five wins per season over the last five years. There's (almost) nowhere to go but up, and fans got some good news this week when second-year running back Trent Richardson, slowed by knee and rib injuries last season, told the Plain Dealer newspaper that he'll be "full-go right from the get-go" of training camp.

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