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“It’s not a Hollywood team,” coach Jim Harbaugh said. “It’s a blue-collar team.”

Four AFC teams are 9-3 and, barring collapses, are headed to the postseason. New England, Baltimore and Pittsburgh are the perennials, Houston the newcomer. Unlike the NFC’s best, though, each carries some hefty question marks.

As long as Tom Brady is slinging the ball and Bill Belichick is masterminding game plans, the Patriots can’t be discounted. Their defense, though, isn’t particularly reliable, with a secondary that makes big plays and gives them up, and a so-so pass rush. Plus, they have lost their last three postseason games, two at home. There’s no air of invincibility around them.

Nor is there one around AFC defending champion Pittsburgh, which must protect Ben Roethlisberger better and create more turnovers on defense. Still, the Steelers are coming on.

Baltimore might have the best balance of offense, defense and special teams in the AFC, with game-breakers (Ray Rice, Terrell Suggs, Haloti Ngata) on both sides of the ball. If the Ravens have cured their tendency to play down to the level of the opposition and can get home-field advantage for the entire playoffs, they could be formidable.

Houston, closing in on its first playoff appearance in its 10th season, is using a rookie third-string quarterback and has been ravaged by injuries, yet has responded superbly. The Texans need to maintain their winning formula even without some key players, a difficult enough challenge in the regular season. The remaining schedule is not the most rugged with Cincinnati, Carolina, Indianapolis and Tennessee remaining.


Even with the enticing story they are writing with Tim Tebow, a forceful defense and some great clutch performances, it’s difficult to see the Broncos riding deep into the playoffs. Same for the Raiders, who are tied with Denver atop the AFC West but who have huge issues on defense and with penalties. One of them will win the division _ their schedules are similar and they don’t meet again _ and not much more.

Dallas can be dangerous in the NFC East, and also can be a flop, as it proved Sunday at Arizona and nearly did on Thanksgiving Day against Miami. You don’t face anyone on the Cardinals’ or Dolphins’ level in the playoffs.

The Cowboys might not even get out of the division if they don’t at least split with the Giants, who trail them by a game and have significant problems running the ball and covering the pass.

Cincinnati can’t beat any of the good teams on its schedule, Chicago is down to a backup quarterback and its key offensive player, RB Matt Forte, has an injured right knee. Undisciplined on the field, Detroit is in semi-free-fall.

The Jets won’t match their last two Januarys, in which they made the AFC title game, unless their defense tackles and covers better, their special teams hold onto the ball and they get a running game to take pressure off QB Mark Sanchez. Tennessee probably needs to beat New Orleans or Houston to grab a wild-card slot, but at least its best player, Chris Johnson, is hitting his peak and is capable of carrying the Titans higher than projected.

That leaves Atlanta, the one “outsider” with the best chance of having an impact in the final four weeks. For that to happen, the Falcons need to emulate their regular season of 2010, when they were the NFC’s top seed. And soon.

Coach Mike Smith expects it will happen.

“We have not played smart, we have not played consistent and I don’t believe we’ve played as focused as we need to be,” he said. “And I think that shows that during different parts of a football game, we’re hitting on all cylinders and then other times, we’re not. That’s something we’ve got to get fixed as a team and we’re going to do this thing together.”