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Flawed foes stand between Pats and Indy

Brian Spurlock/US Presswire

The Patriots aren’t without their flaws, but their road to the Super Bowl in Indianapolis is littered with a field of AFC contenders that have plenty of warts of their own. Consider the following ...

THE PRETENDERS

* The third-seeded Houston Texans lost three straight (including one at the hands of the Colts) heading into the playoffs and are without injured starting quarterback Matt Shaub. In his place is rookie T.J. Yates, who was knocked out of the season finale with an injury of his own.

* The fourth-seeded Denver Broncos are coming off three straight losses of their own and are led by a quarterback in Tim Tebow that has four interceptions and just one touchdown pass over that span. He threw for just 60 yards in the season finale against the Chiefs. The Patriots thrashed the Broncos in Denver in Week 15.

* The sixth-seeded Cincinnati Bengals were 3-5 over the second half of the season and haven’t scored more than 24 points in a game since October. Rookie quarterback Andy Dalton has had a good season, but if you’re a Bengals fan do you trust him to come into Gillette Stadium in January and beat the Patriots?

THE CONTENDERS

* The fifth-seeded Pittsburgh Steelers exposed the flaws in the Patriots’ defense like no other team this season, beating them in Pittsburgh with a dominant ball-possession passing attack. If the Pats face the Steelers again, they’ll be doing it with a hobbled Ben Roethlisberger (high-ankle sprain) and without leading rusher Rashard Mendenhall (torn ACL).

* The second-seeded Baltimore Ravens are playoff-tested, have an attacking defense that has been effective against the Patriots’ offense in the past (remember the 2009 playoffs?) and a running back in Ray Rice that can give New England fits in both the running and passing games. But quarterback Joe Flacco has been inconsistent this season and the Ravens are just 4-4 away from home, a road record that includes losses to the Seahawks (7-9), Jaguars (5-11) and Chargers (8-8). Ouch. If the Ravens end up playing the Pats, it would be at Gillette Stadium.

Do you see a tantalizing opportunity here for the Patriots with such a flawed field of AFC opponents? Which do you think is their biggest obstacle to Super Bowl XLVI? That was the topic of an ESPN Boston Hot Button today, with Chris Forsberg arguing for the Steelers and Mike Reiss making a case for the Ravens.