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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Thursday, January 5, 2012 at 9:50 AM

Back with you as promised to run through our key indicator stats for the six AFC playoff teams. If you missed our report on the NFC, which included a brief description of our favorite stats, please check the archives for that report. You can't pick winners in the playoffs unless you know the TRUE strengths and weaknesses of all the teams!

Don't forget that we'll have head-to-head previews for you Saturday and Sunday for Wildcard Weekend. These midweek reports are designed to take a big picture look at the race for the championship. We start with the wide shot...then we'll zoom in this weekend for the first four games on the card.

Just like yesterday, we start with strength of schedule as tabulated by Jeff Sagarin in his USA Today computer ratings...

Denver: 8th
Cincinnati: 23rd
Pittsburgh: 26th
Baltimore: 27th
New England: 28th
Houston: 32nd

It's amazing how many top teams we have this year who played very easy schedules. We saw this yesterday with the three best seeds in the NFC. Here the "big three" dangerous threats of New England, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh all had it easy. Houston had the easiest schedule in the whole league! That helped them weather their storm of quarterback injuries. Houston dodges the power base in the first round of the AFC brackets with a home game against Cincinnati.

Denver is the only team that played a tough schedule. But, it's very hard to take them seriously in the playoffs given their complete lack of offense. Can they grind three games in a row against the likes of Pittsburgh, New England, and Baltimore? They were badly outclassed in a home game against New England not too long ago. Heck, they didn't establish superiority against the likes of Buffalo or Kansas City the past two weeks!

As much as we love this stat, it doesn't look like there are any hidden gems in the strength of schedule category this year. Maybe Detroit of NYG will change our minds about that.

New England: 22.6 on offense, 17.4 on defense (+5.2 differential)
Baltimore: 13.0 on offense, 8.3 on defense (+4.7 differential)
Pittsburgh: 12.8 on offense, 8.1 on defense (+4.7 differential)
Houston: 12.8 on offense, 8.9 on defense (+3.9 differential)
Denver: 11.1 on offense, 12.9 on defense (-1.8 differential)
Cincinnati: 10.1 on offense, 12.4 on defense (-2.3 differential)

No juggernauts here. New England's offense is a juggernaut, but their defense can keep any quality opponent in the game. You remember how Pittsburgh controlled the flow of the regular season meeting between the teams. No surprise at all that the "big three" show up on top. Houston could have made that a "big four" if Matt Schaub had stayed healthy all season. If you only count the games since his injury, Houston is closer to +1 vs. a weak schedule. Not at all playoff caliber.

It's a weird year in the AFC. Denver and Cincinnati don't have playoff caliber stats, but they're invited. Houston isn't right now a playoff caliber team. But, you can't say that the "just missed" teams like Oakland, San Diego, the Jets, and Tennessee got hosed. There weren't six teams who would get the job done on command...but somebody had to fill out the brackets.

Baltimore: 42% on offense, 32% on defense (+10 differential)
Pittsburgh: 46% on offense, 39% on defense (+7 differential)
Houston: 42% on offense, 36% on defense (+6 differential)
New England: 46% on offense, 43% on defense (+3 differential)
Cincinnati: 37% on offense, 36% on defense (+1 differential)
Denver: 31% on offense, 34% on defense (-3 differential)

Houston falls back to earth in terms of playoff potential because they'll either be using T.J. Yates or Jake Delhomme at the quarterback position. That puts the "big three" on top again...and keeps Cincinnati and Denver off the radar. Baltimore and Pittsburgh are built as antidotes to what New England brings to the that could set up some interesting matchups down the road. Pittsburgh had the best regular season differential of AFC playoff teams last year...and it helped them reach the Super Bowl.

Over in the NFC, San Francisco is the only true "grinder" left because the other five teams have quarterbacks they like. Over here in the AFC, it's like Houston, Cincinnati, and Denver are all San Francisco style grinders who need to shorten games and try to win late coin flips if they want to advance. The loss of Schaub for Houston is really about to hit home. They were lucky to beat the Bengals on the road (in a coin flip) a few weeks ago.

New England: +17 (34 takeaways, 17 giveaways)
Houston: +7 (27 takeaways, 20 giveaways)
Baltimore: +2 (26 takeaways, 24 giveaways)
Cincinnati: even (22 takeaways, 22 giveaways)
Pittsburgh: -9 (15 takeaways, 24 giveaways)
Denver: -12 (18 takeaways, 30 giveaways)

Very interesting numbers. We don't have anyone like San Francisco or Green Bay over here, with differentials of +20. New England is the closest...and you know that those takeaways are coming from opponents playing catch up so often. They don't really have a defense that scares people. And, the following numbers are among the most stunning of the year in a stat context:

Baltimore +2
Pittsburgh -9

These teams have hard-hitting defenses, and offenses with experienced quarterbacks who show know how to avoid big mistakes. Yet...both teams lost the ball 24 times during the regular season. And, Pittsburgh's defense couldn't take the ball away to save its life for several weeks there. Last year Pittsburgh was +17 and Baltimore was +7. (Last year, New England was +28! A lot of good that did them). How could these defensive powers go from +24 to -7??!

Denver is a turnover machine when they fall behind because Tim Tebow can't throw accurate passes...and he's become prone to fumbles when he scrambles or gets sacked. The drama was fun while it lasted. But, eking out close wins over non-playoff teams doesn't prepare you for championship football. In terms of the basics of play, Denver may be one of the worst playoff teams we've seen in years. Tebow dodged the most horrible part of the schedule...and got routed by Detroit and New England on his home field. Of course, we said that about Seattle last year and they upset New Orleans in the first round!

Let's put it all together...

#1 SEED NEW ENGLAND: the Pats bring everything to the table they had last year, when they were upset by the NY Jets in the first round. They may have the misfortune of opening against Pittsburgh if #3 seed Houston gets by Cincinnati (that would force a 2-3 matchup with Houston and Baltimore in the second round, sending the Pittsburgh-Denver winner to Foxboro). Home field means they're still the favorites...but they're going to have to play at their best at least once and possibly twice just to reach the Super Bowl.

#2 SEED BALTIMORE: this perennial disappointment has the table set as best as possible outside of being a #1 seed. And, this year, #2 may be better than #1 given how the brackets fall. One of the top two teams will have to play Pittsburgh. It's funny that Cincinnati has so much influence on who that's going to be. Baltimore is already 2-0 vs. the Steelers. Are they capable of beating them three in a row? We've said for awhile now that Joe Flacco has to prove to us that he can win big playoff games before we trust him with a championship on the line. It's time for Flacco to make that move.

#3 SEED HOUSTON: hard to take them seriously outside the puncher's chance that defensive-minded grinder teams have in January football. Overmatched quarterbacks just aren't reaching the Super Bowl these days, no matter how good their running games or defenses are.

#4 SEED DENVER: a replay of Kansas City's embarrassing effort as the AFC West representative last year isn't out of the question. Depends on Ben Roethlisberger's ankle. Maybe Tebow catches a break in the fact that Pittsburgh isn't forcing turnovers this year.

#5 SEED PITTSBURGH: a fantastic team for a #5 seed. That can happen when two league powers are in the same division. Taking care of business quickly in Denver would help save their energy for the next week. A drawn out thriller in Denver would eventually take its toll on the team down the road.

#6 SEED CINCINNATI: Drawing Houston in the first round is lucky as far as #6's go...the third best divisional winner isn't usually such a non-threat. But, Cincinnati isn't much of a threat themselves. They played their best football several weeks ago. They might really be a 5-11 or 6-10 calilber team right now in terms of the most recent form...which is also true of Houston with T.J. Yates for that matter.

No surprise that the AFC is likely to come down to New England, Baltimore, or Pittsburgh...since those were popular choices at the start of the season. The surprise in the AFC was that so few other preseason contenders survived the campaign. We expect to learn some things in Week Two of the AFC brackets that will help in the championship game and Super Bowl. This first week is more about housecleaning than anything else...unless Mr. Tebow has something special up his sleeve.

We'll focus more directly on this week's matchups in our Saturday and Sunday editions of the NOTEBOOK. Game day releases will be available online for credit card purchases on those days. You can also sign up for the rest of football here at the website or in our office. The number to call is 1-800-323-4453.

If you love basketball, be sure to check out our Thursday card. The TNT double header tonight is Miami-Atlanta and Lakers-Portland. There's also a great game in Texas with Dallas at San Antonio. In the colleges tonight we're looking at Michigan-Indiana and Arizona-UCLA as big play opportunities in TV games.

Back tomorrow for stat previews of this weekend's three bowl games (Cotton, Compass, and Go-Daddy). Then it's NFL playoff previews over the weekend...followed by the long awaited BCS Championship Preview for Alabama-LSU on Monday.

2012 has just started...which means THE WINNING IS JUST BEGINNING!

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