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By Mark Gaughan

General Manager Rick Smith has done an amazing job stockpiling pass rushers on his Houston roster, which is why the Texans have felt no pain from the departure of Mario Williams.

Four of the last eight picks the Texans have made in the top two rounds of the draft have gone to pass rushers, and a fifth went to an inside linebacker with good blitzing ability. That’s a pretty good strategy in a league in which top quarterbacks pass like mad.

The Texans got a capable rusher in Connor Barwin in the second round in 2009. He has 17 sacks in 40 games. Then they hit it big in 2011 with J.J. Watt at 11th overall and Brooks Reed at No. 42. Watt has 15 sacks in 23 games; Reed 8.5. This year they took Illinois’ Whitney Mercilus at 26 overall.

Houston was well positioned to replace Williams. With Mercilus on board, they likely won’t miss Barwin if he leaves when his contract runs out after this season. Throw in inside linebacker Brian Cushing (on injured reserve this year), and the Texans have plenty of rush options.

Smith, who took over the Texans football operation after ex-GM Charley Casserly took Williams in the 2006 draft, was groomed in Mike Shanahan’s Denver Broncos regime.

The Texans are on track for a second straight playoff appearance not because Smith’s drafts have been ridiculously good (like those of Green Bay), but because he has scored big personnel hits at the most important positions on the field.

His trade of two second round picks for quarterback Matt Schaub in 2007 was a shrewd talent evaluation. Schaub has 102 touchdown passes, 56 interceptions and a passer rating of 93.9 in five-plus seasons in Houston.

Smith filled the left tackle spot with the top pick in 2008 when he took Duane Brown 26th overall out of Virginia Tech. Not many draftniks had Brown rated as a first-rounder, and there were seven offensive tackles taken in the first round before No. 26, an amazing run at the position. But Brown has proved that Smith did not simply reach for a need. He has started 67 of 71 games in his career and hasn’t been called for a holding penalty since 2008.

Overall, Smith has hit on his No. 1 overall pick in four straight drafts entering this year (Mercilus could make it five straight). The Texans have one starter from the ‘08 draft, four from ‘09, one from ‘10 and three from ‘11. Fourteen starters, including undrafted running back Arian Foster, are homegrown.

Smith benefits from stable ownership, too. Houston’s Bob McNair stayed patient through five non-playoff seasons with coach Gary Kubiak before the team broke through to the postseason last year. The Texans ranked eighth in the league in cash spending for the seven seasons from 2005 thorugh 2011.

NFC rules AFC

The NFC is 20-12 against the AFC this season. The NFC teams have outscored the AFC, 868-677, in those games and had a plus-21 turnover differential in the games. Twelve of the top 18 teams in The News’ power rankings (and just about everyone else’s) are from the NFC.

The AFC won the interconference series 15 seasons in a row, from 1996 through 2010. Last year the NFC finally broke through, posting a 33-31 edge. Look for the edge to be a lot wider this season.

Better defenses in the NFC is part of the reason for the edge. Eleven of the top 15-ranked defenses are in the NFC. The AFC currently has only two defenses that can be considered elite – Pittsburgh and Houston. Two formerly elite defensive teams – the Ravens and Jets – are struggling this year. The NFC has elite defenses in San Francisco, Chicago and Dallas, with Seattle and Arizona playing at a high level.

“You’ve just seen a switch in consistent play from the NFC, especially on defense,” said ex-Patriots player Willie McGinest. “Being a defensive guy, it was always known for the AFC to be pretty physical, and now we’re seeing the NFC as a whole running the ball and playing great defense.”

The big interconference matchup today is Pittsburgh at the New York Giants, two teams that have combined to appear in five of the past seven Super Bowls. The Giants are 16-7 against the AFC.

Steelers Dink

The relationship between Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and new offensive coordinator Todd Haley is an interesting one that bears watching. The Steelers hired Haley to replace the fired Bruce Arians, with whom Roethlisberger had a long-term good rapport. Haley, former head coach in Kansas City, is a strong personality who had a rocky relationship with Chiefs QB Matt Cassel.

Roethlisberger has raised eyebrows by calling Haley’s offense a “dink and dunk.” Big Ben expanded on that term this week in an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

“When I grew up, the 49ers, that’s what they did,” Roethlisberger said. “That’s what a West Coast offense is. Not saying we’re a West Coast offense. But ‘dink and dunk’ is not a negative term. We’re taking advantage of quick, fast receivers, running backs, tight ends, guys getting open. Especially when defenses take away the big play down the field, that’s what’s open.”

Pittsburgh’s offense is doing fine, despite injuries at running back. It ranks 10th overall and seventh in passing yards. Roethlisberger has 14 TD passes and three interceptions. He ranks seventh in passer rating at 101.4. The Steelers are running a lot fewer four and five-receiver sets. Speedy wideout Mike Wallace entered the season with an 18.7 career average in yards per catch. This year he’s averaging 12.8. He said he has run only eight “go routes” this year.

There’s a good reason for Haley wanting to get the ball out of his QB’s hand quicker. Playing behind a shaky offensive line, Roethlisberger taken a beating during his career. He ranked among the top four most sacked QBs in the league five of the last six years, getting sacked 261 times over that span. Being an Amazon in the pocket is one of Big Ben’s great strengths, but the Steelers can’t afford to watch his career get shortened by relentless pounding.

Roethlisberger has been sacked 13 times in seven games, and the Steelers rank 13th best in terms of sacks allowed per pass attempt. Stay tuned to see if more dinking and fewer hits keeps Ben happy.

Onside kicks

• The Bears are the first team in NFL history with six interception returns for touchdowns in the first seven games to start a season.

• The Dolphins last week became the first team in 20 years to block a punt, block a field goal and recover an onside kick in the same game.

• The Steelers took the rare step of flying into New York this morning for today’s 4:25 p.m. game against the Giants. The hotel at which Pittsburgh was going to stay was without power due to Hurricane Sandy.

• In beating the Cowboys last week the Giants became the first team since 2007 and only the fifth since 1950 to lose a lead of at least 23 points and win the game.

email: mgaughan@buffnews.com