49ers and Texans:

Travis Basciotta

It has been a crazy opening two weeks in the National Football League and fans like myself could not have asked for anything more (except, of course, capable referees).

Coming off of the “Bountygate” scan-dal, the New Orleans Saints have lost their first two games while the Minnesota Vi-kings and Kevin Kolb-led Arizona Cardi-nals find themselves at 2-0. The New York Giants, Dallas Cowboys, New England Patriots, Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers have all shown vulnerabilities en route to 1-1 records. So, considering all the craziness, who can we consider the favorites to reach the Super Bowl in each conference?

My editors, along with many legitimate pundits across the nation, suggest the San Francisco 49ers and the Houston Texans, two undefeated teams that have looked strong in their opening games. Head coach Jim Harbaugh has led his 49ers team to two convincing eight-point victories: in Lambeau against the Green Bay Packers and at home last Sunday night in a rematch of last year’s “handshake game” against the Detroit Lions.

The major takeaway from both of these games was the true explosiveness of the 49ers defense. Aaron Rodgers looked like an average quarterback at home, taking four sacks and tossing a pick to NaVarro Bowman. On the ground, the Packers only managed to rack up 45 yards, with the recently acquired Cedric Benson proving to be a non-factor.

Initially, I thought the performance was a bit of an anomaly. Surely, Mr. Rodgers and company were just rusty after a long offseason.

Then came Sunday night. Matt Stafford and his three favorite weapons (his rocket arm, his chubby face and Megatron) were without ammunition against Patrick Wil-lis, Aldon Smith and the rest of the 49ers defense. Stafford completed only 19 passes for 230 yards, one touchdown and one in-terception. Calvin Johnson did his best to get open and make plays for his quarter-back, but the Niners’ secondary was smart to shadow him the whole night, forc-ing the other Lions wideouts to step up. When they failed to deliver, Stafford began throwing into coverage to get the ball to his go-to receiver, and the offense stalled.

Sunday night showed that the San Francisco defense is the best in the league, but questions remain on the other side of the ball. If there is one person who can manage to lose games with this good of a defense, it’s Alex Smith. I have always been a firm believer that elite quarterbacks are necessary to win championships, and, at this stage in his career, Smith is far from elite.

The 49ers offense revolves around a steady running game with Frank Gore and play-action passes when the defense crowds the box. That strategy can only work if the 49ers defense can build a lead and the offense can pick up first downs on the ground. Come playoff time, it’ll be a lot tougher for their conservative offense to pick up yards against defenses like the Giants, Eagles or Falcons. If forced to play from behind, Smith could be much more prone to make the kinds of mistakes we’ve seen him make over the past seven seasons.

In the AFC, the Houston Texans have jumped out to a 2-0 record with 20-point victories over two teams from the Sun-shine State – the Jacksonville Jaguars and Miami Dolphins.

Quite frankly, I think it is way too early to be calling the Texans favorites to win the AFC, especially considering their body of work thus far consists of wins against perennial doormats.

Like the 49ers, the Texans like to use their running game to control tempo and play with a lead. However, quarterbacks matter in this league, especially come play-off time, and I’m not sold on Matt Schaub. He has loads of talent and a great big play weapon in Andre Johnson, but he doesn’t have the playoff experience to fall back on when the time comes to lead his team from behind.

I’d take Brady, Flacco, Manning, Riv-ers and even Roethlisberger over Schaub in a must-win game. Those quarterbacks all have playoff victories under their belt, and are better equipped to handle the pressure that comes in January.

I think I’d also rather have Bill Belich-ick or John Harbaugh on the sidelines than Gary Kubiak who has led a talented Texans team to only a .500 record in six seasons at the helm. Playoff football is an entirely different game, and until the Texans come through later in the season, I think the Pa-triots and Ravens can pencil their tickets to the AFC Championship Game.

Contact Travis Basciotta at t[email protected]