Originally posted on Optimum Scouting  |  Last updated 11/29/11

Another week, another crushing blow for the Houston Texans.  The current top dog in the AFC lost yet another quarterback on Sunday, leaving a rookie 5th round pick charged with leading the Texans to the promised land.

Are they still the team to beat in the AFC, or will they just be holding on desperate to a playoff spot? We talk about all that and more in this week’s recap. 

Will The Leader in the AFC, Please Stand Up?
After years of being the clearly dominant conference, the AFC appears to have fallen behind the NFC in overall talent for the first time in recent memory. In the past, there has been a clear, dominate favorite in the AFC that would have been picked by nearly everyone to end up winning the Super Bowl.

This year is quite the opposite. There is no dominate team in the AFC this season. Instead, there are a slew of eight win teams vying for the top seed in the AFC, while three six win teams still have a more than viable shot at earning a wild card berth. With five weeks remaining in the regular season, is there a favorite to earn the top seed in the AFC? Is there a team clearly better than the rest?

The discussion has to start with the team currently atop the AFC, the Houston Texans. A mere three weeks ago it would have made sense to tab them as the favorites in the conference. But now, three weeks and two quarterbacks later, it’s widely assumed that Houston’s main goal will now be just to hold on to a playoff spot at all. While T.J. Yates role won’t be a weakness for the Texans (more on that later), there are even more reasons to remain optimistic. Regardless of who is under center, they have the third ranked rushing offense in the league, along with the league’s best defense. That’s a formula for success late in the season and in the playoffs. Their games with Atlanta and at Cincinnati will likely determine whether or not they have home field advantage in the playoffs.

The key battle in the AFC will be the one fought between the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers for the AFC North Title. The leader there is Baltimore, courtesy of the Ravens’ two wins against the Steelers. Baltimore has an extremely favorable schedule down the stretch, as only one of their remaining opponents has a record above .500 (Cincinnati). If the Ravens offense seems to be clicking at the right time as well: rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith is starting to make plays consistently, proving that he is a deep threat to be reckoned with.

In spite of having the same record as the Ravens, the Steelers will have quite a bit of catching up to do if they want the AFC North crown. They are coming off an extremely unimpressive win over a struggling Kansas City team, where the Pittsburgh offense struggled for 60 minutes. It took an incredibly poor effort by Chiefs wide receiver Dwayne Bowe on a 4th down pass for the Steelers to come away with a 13-9 victory. The key for the Steelers will be a match up with the Bengals as well as a cross country trip to San Francisco. They’ll need to win both of those games, as well as hope the Ravens drop at least one if Pittsburgh wants to win the division title.

While all of these other teams have plenty to feel good about, the team to beat in the AFC is still the New England Patriots. These aren’t the seemingly insurmountable Patriots we’ve grown to know in the past. They, like the rest of the teams in the AFC, have flaws that could prove deadly if exploited correctly. They still have a questionable running game, no real deep threat, and a defense that is easily taken advantage of. But they’ve won three straight games, and their last five games have no opponent with a winning record. It’s likely that they’ll go into the post season on an eight game winning streak. That’s certainly not news that the rest of the AFC will be eager to hear. 

Surprise of the Week
Just two weeks ago, the Houston Texans probably couldn’t help but feel like things couldn’t get much worse on the injury front. While stand out wide receiver Andre Johnson was nearing a return, they had just been dealt a crushing blow as they learned quarterback Matt Schaub would miss the rest of the season with a foot injury. Houston’s playoff hopes would rest on the shoulders on Matt Leinart.

But, as things often have in the Texans’ short history, things did get worse. After a hot start in their game against Jacksonville on Sunday, Leinart went down with a broken collar bone. He too will be sidelined for the rest of the season. Now it is up to T.J. Yates to end the decade long playoff drought in Houston. What can the Texans expect out of their rookie third string quarterback?

It’s certainly to be expected that Houston fans will have pretty low expectations for Yates. Most will just hope he can manage the game without making any big mistakes. As long as he can hand the ball off to Arian Foster and complete a couple of passes to Johnson, he will for the most live have lived up to what Texan fans expect of him. But is that really all Yates can do? Is he just someone to manage a game?

The scouting report on Yates isn’t entirely flattering. He doesn’t have a particularly strong arm, and that hurts his accuracy on his deeper passes.  He’s not particularly athletic either, and isn’t likely to make any big plays on the ground.

The news isn’t all bad for Houston though, and in fact there may be cause for optimism. Yates may not be overly effecting throwing the ball deep, but he’s great in the short to intermediate game. He completed 67% of his passes in his senior year at North Carolina, throwing 19 touchdowns and only nine interceptions.

Yates didn’t rack up these numbers in an offense designed to inflate numbers either. He played in a pro style offense while at North Carolina. Unlike many rookie quarterbacks, he’s already comfortable taking snaps under center and operating in a traditional offense. He appears to be a good fit in the Texans’ offense as well. The Houston coaching staff has raved about Yates since training camp, and they weren’t afraid to put the ball in his hands on Sunday. He threw 15 passes, and while he only completed eight of them, he showed respectable poise for a rookie thrown into his first action.

Yates probably won’t put up any Pro Bowl type numbers while at the helm in Houston. But don’t just assume Yates will only be a game manager. He’s got plenty of weapons to get the ball to, including a very well rested Andre Johnson. He’ll be able to put up good numbers, and he should be able to keep Houston’s hold on first place in the AFC South, and perhaps the number one spot in the AFC overall.

Rookie Watch
When the Tennessee Titans closed up shop in the war room following this past April’s draft, it was pretty clear which rookies would be the focus of the fan’s  and media’s attentions during the 2011 season. On the offensive side it was Jake Locker, the team’s first round pick and quarterback of the future. On the defensive side it would likely be linebacker Akeem Ayers, a pass rushing specialist that figured to thrive in new defensive coordinator Jerry Gray’s defensive scheme.

It’s surely come as a surprise to everyone involved then that the standout rookie hasn’t been Locker or Ayers, but a fourth round pick, middle linebacker Colin McCarthy. Over the last month McCarthy has made three starts in the place Barrett Rudd, and has made an impact in each of those starts. In fact, McCarthy has been the leading tackler for the Titans in each of those three games, racking up 28 tackles over that period. 

McCarthy’s presence has made a big difference in the Titans’ rushing defense, a phase of the game that has been the defense’s weakness all season. He’s anchored the middle of the defense and been pushed around far less than Rudd was.  But where McCarthy has really shined is in the passing game. He’s continually played well against running backs and tight ends in coverage, and intercepted Josh Freeman with two minutes left in the fourth quarter on Sunday, effectively ending all realistic chances Tampa Bay had of making a come back.

The Titans drafted McCarthy primarily to be a back up linebacker that could play multiple positions. But a strong work ethic and dedication to studying film has quickly matured the former Miami Hurricane into a playmaker that always finds himself around the ball. His play on the field has made it undeniable for Tennessee: McCarthy is much more than a back up, he’s their answer at middle linebacker.

Fantasy Notes
As we head into the final quarter of the season, it’s time to prepare your roster for the playoffs. If you’re in a typical setup, you’ll be looking specifically for players that will produce in weeks 14-16. Look no further opponents of the St. Louis Rams and the Indianapolis Colts.

The Colts face off against Baltimore, Tennessee, and Houston over that stretch. While it’s going to be tough to pry Ray Rice away from his current owner, you should look into picking up Ben Tate and Ricky Williams. Both of these guys, along with Javon Ringer, are just one play away from seeing significant time against the Colts’ porous defense.

The Rams’ opponents offer some more realistic options for late seasons pick ups. They face Seattle, Cincinnati, and Pittsburg in weeks 14-16, and each of those teams has running backs that should be available via either trade of the waiver wire. Guys like Cedric Benson and Rashard Mendenhall haven’t been overly productive during the season, but playing a defense such as the Rams instantly makes them a top five fantasy running back, at least for a week.

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