Mostly clear

AFC lacks powerhouses in 2013

  • Cincinnati Bengals middle linebacker Rey Maualuga (58) tries to tackle Houston Texans running back Arian Foster (23) during the fourth quarter of an NFL wild card playoff football game Saturday, Jan. 5, 2013, in Houston. (AP Photo/Patric Schneider)

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.

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