The Houston Texas are primed to make a run at the Super Bowl this season after… (David J. Phillip / Associated…)
Houston, we have a problem.
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.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, July 20, 2013 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
NFL: A photo caption accompanying an article about the AFC teams in the July 18 Sports section misspelled Denver Broncos wide receiver Wes Welker's name as Walker.
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:
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.
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.
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' 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.
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% of last season's receptions.
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.
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.
Colts: How good is Chuck Pagano?