The Houston Texans lost their top tackler two weeks ago when middle linebacker Brian Cushing went down with a season-ending knee injury. A week later, they were embarrassed by the Green Bay Packers, 42-24, on their home field as Aaron Rodgers threw six touchdown passes, the Texans couldn't run the football and their special teams faltered.
Earlier that day, the Ravens outlasted the mistake-prone Dallas Cowboys, 31-29. In the process, they lost their leading tackler (Ray Lewis) and best cornerback (Lardarius Webb) to season-ending injuries, allowed more than 200 rushing yards for a second straight week and hung onto a victory only after a late Dallas dropped two-point conversion and a missed field goal.
It was just one week in the topsy-turvy NFL, but neither team exited last Sunday looking like a legitimate Super Bowl contender or the class of the AFC. Yet when the conference's only two winning teams play Sunday afternoon at Houston's Reliant Stadium, the winner will improve to 6-1 and become the clear front runner in an AFC presently marred by mediocrity.
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"We know whenever you get a chance to seize or take control of the [conference], you have to do that," Ravens tight end Ed Dickson said. "We have a chance to go on the road in a hostile environment and get on top of the [AFC]. We got a chance to go be No 1 in the [conference]. We're treating it like any other game, but deep in our minds, we're thinking about that."
Why shouldn't they? Even after playing just six games, even after losing two of their best defensive players and watching their once intimidating defense continually get gouged, the Ravens enter Sunday two games better than everybody else in the conference aside from the Texans.
That's because seven of the AFC's 16 teams, including the entire East division, take a 3-3 record into the weekend. It marks the furthest into an NFL season that a conference has just two winning teams.
"I think the longer you are around, the less surprised you get," said veteran Ravens center Matt Birk. "You realize that there is parity, and I think being a player, you understand that every team is good, every team is talented. Every week, there are a few games that surprise people, surprise the experts. It seems like it comes out of nowhere. I'm a little surprised that there are only two teams with winning records in the AFC, but we're only six games in. There's a lot of football to be played."
Sunday's game is a rematch of an AFC divisional playoff game from last season, and it features numerous subplots. The Texans have never beaten the Ravens in six tries. Arian Foster and Ray Rice are two of the game's best all-purpose backs. The Ravens' Vonta Leach, Jacoby Jones and Bernard Pollard return to Houston, where they used to play. Both defenses face questions about how they'll hold up in the absence of their top tackler and emotional leader.
More than anything, the game could serve as a showcase of the state of the AFC. Even with some recent issues and key injuries, the Texans and Ravens have played well enough to look down at a host of teams who have been unable to sustain any consistency as they near the midpoint of the season.
"I don't have a theory [on it]," Ravens linebacker Paul Kruger said when asked about the parity in the AFC. "There's a lot of good football players. It's just every week is going to be a challenge for any team, whoever they're playing, no matter what division. That's how I look at it. People have different theories, but I just think everybody is good. To be a dominant team in this league, you have to be really special."
For much of the past decade, the AFC has been considered the dominant conference, thanks largely to the extended success of the New England Patriots, Indianapolis Colts and Pittsburgh Steelers. But the NFC has won the last three Super Bowls and gotten the better of the recent head-to-head matchups.
NFC teams went 33-31 last season against the AFC, the first time since 1995 that the NFC had a winning record in such matchups. The success has continued into this season, as the NFC is 19-9 against AFC teams. That's a big reason why only two AFC teams currently have winning records.
Because his team had its first early afternoon home game of the season last Sunday, Ravens coach John Harbaugh had a chance to go home and watch games that he normally wouldn't have gotten to see. Harbaugh came away marveling at how closely matched teams in the NFL are.
"We see a lot of good football teams," said Harbaugh, whose team's last five games have essentially come down to the final possession. "It's crazy. Every game goes down to the wire. I don't know how these coaches do it in this league."
Like Harbaugh, Texans coach Gary Kubiak feels like it's too early to draw any conclusions.
"I think there is great balance in this league," he said. "Everybody has a good core of players, and yet, everybody in this league goes through tough times with injuries and those types of things, which can change things week to week. It's one or two plays a week that are the difference in whether or not you win or lose. So, it doesn't surprise me. It's a league where you battle all year long, and you try to get yourself in position in that last month to be playing good enough to hopefully win a championship."
Kubiak's players said all week that they had moved on from the loss to the Packers, while the Ravens spent the week preaching "next man up" after losing Lewis and Webb. Both sides cautioned that it is way too early to examine the potential ramifications of Sunday's outcome. However, with so many teams in the AFC struggling to stay afloat, it's almost impossible not to.
"No matter what happens, I think we're both going to come from the game still feeling pretty good about where we are," Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said. "It's a good test, and it will be a great game. I'm sure that both teams are going to want to go into this game and be able to come out saying that they are the winner. That's really where we are right now."
The AFC by the Numbers
Number of teams with winning records: 2
Number of teams with 3-3 records: 7
Number of teams with just one win: 4
Record against NFC teams: 9-19
Record against NFC last year: 31-33
Last time before last year NFC won interconference battle: 1995
Last time AFC won the Super Bowl: 2008Orioles Insider | Live scores | Photos | Baseball app