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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Thursday, December 8, 2011 at 9:15 AM

The new NFL weekend starts tonight with the Cleveland Browns visiting the Pittsburgh Steelers on the NFL Network. We've got a stat preview for you here in the NOTEBOOK. And, because it doesn't take all day to preview a game where the home team is a two-touchdown favorite (!), we've also put together some notes on the AFC playoff race.

Let's start with the playoff race...because that's likely to be more interesting than Browns/Steelers unless Pittsburgh plays horribly!

First, these four teams are pretty much shoe-ins to play in the AFC brackets in January...

New England: 9-3
Baltimore: 9-3
Pittsburgh: 9-3
Houston: 9-3

Those will be three divisional winners and one of the two Wildcards. Nobody else in the AFC is even 8-4, so these teams are already at least two games clear of the field...and have multiple winnable games remaining. We'll get into the nuances of byes and home field later in the month. For now, we're just talking about the playoff picture...and these teams are in barring a collapse. Houston's the best nominee to collapse because they're down to their #3 quarterback. But, they just beat Atlanta anyway!

It's also likely that the Super Bowl representative from the AFC will come from that foursome. Two of those will be bye teams. One will have home field throughout. It's going to be tough for somebody from outside of that quartet to run the table. The Jets have come close from off the pace the last two seasons...but they ultimately didn't reach the big game.

One additional spot will go to the AFC West champion, so let's look a bit closer at that race. Here are the records, and the remaining schedules for all four teams...

Denver: 7-5 (vs. Chicago, vs. NE, at Buffalo, vs. KC)
Oakland: 7-5 (at GB, vs. Detroit, at KC, vs. SD)
Kansas City: 5-7 (at NYJ, vs. GB, vs. Oakland, at Denver)
San Diego: 5-7 (vs. Buffalo, vs. Baltimore, at Detroit, at Oakland)

Denver looks to have the easiest path because of three home games, and Caleb Hanie coming to visit this week. But, it's not like the Broncos are on a rampage during their recent win streak. They're barely getting by some mediocre (or worse) teams. Oakland probably takes a hit at Green Bay this week, but has a shot for 10-6 after that. Kansas City is probably toast with that schedule, and could lose out. San Diego...well, it's the Chargers. Nobody would be shocked if they won the last four games to take the division at 9-7. Nobody would be shocked if they got close then choked at the last second.

Clearly, the AFC West is up for grabs, with the eventual winner likely to be a home underdog in the first round against whoever finishes second between Pittsburgh and Baltimore. The worst of the divisional winners will play the best of the Wildcards.

Speaking of Wildcards, we have one spot left, and a slew of teams who are currently at 7-5 and tied for the spot if the playoffs started today.

NY Jets: 7-5 (vs. KC, at Philly, vs. NYG, at Miami)
Cincinnati: 7-5 (vs. Houston, at St. Louis, vs. Arizona, vs. Baltimore)
Tennessee: 7-5 (vs. NO, at Indy, vs. Jacksonville, at Houston)
Denver: 7-5 (see above)
Oakland: 7-5 (see above)
Nobody: 6-6 (see above)

These five teams are clear of the field for now because nobody's sitting at .500. It's possible that 5-7 Buffalo or one of the AFC West also-rans could get hot for 9-7...and there's an outside chance that 9-7 will get the job done. We'll wait a few weeks before worrying about that. For now, the second and final Wildcard spot is likely to come from that group. Cincinnati arguably has the easiest path with three home games, two crappy NFC West opponents, shorthanded Houston, and possibly Baltimore in a lame duck spot at the very end. But, the Jets are capable of sweeping that schedule, and Tennessee may have found its running game last week. Note that Cincinnati currently has the best conference record amongst the top three...and has a head-to-head win over Tennessee. But, interestingly, Denver does currently have a better conference record than Cincy, and has a head-to-head win over the Bengals from way back in the early days of the season.

Now, here some quick stats for the Thursday Night game. Let's run through our standard indicator numbers...

Cleveland: 7.1 on offense, 10.4 on defense
Pittsburgh: 14.0 on offense, 9.7 on defense

The Browns offense has been abysmal. You probably deduced that even if you haven't watched many of their games because you never see offensive highlights. The Red Zone channel never heard of them. This was supposed to be a team that was one to watch in 2011. It's turned out to be the team you should avoid watching as a general rule. Now, they find themselves on the road...playing a top notch defense...on a cold night in Pittsburgh. Not exactly the ideal spot to breakthrough. But, the Steelers occasionally get lackadaisical as big it certainly is possible a divisional rival could give them a big fight.

Note that the combination of numbers above would suggest that an Under is worth considering. You have two of the four categories in single digits...and another just a big divisional game in an Ice Belt city late in the year. There are no sure things in sports. But, this particular category would point to a defensive struggle similar to what Cleveland plays most weeks, and what Pittsburgh played two weeks ago in Kansas City.

Cleveland: 39% on offense, 41% on defense
Pittsburgh: 47% on offense, 40% on defense

Clear edges to the Steelers...but not really those that would align with such a big favorite. Cleveland isn't a disaster...and Pittsburgh's defense is below standards considering that conversions league wide have been surprisingly low this year (the NFL is trending toward "punting is better than turning it over" philosophy). In fact, those 40% and 41% marks on defense are below average this year for pro football.

Cleveland: -1 (13 takeaways, 14 giveaways)
Pittsburgh: -6 (12 takeaways, 18 giveaways)

The Steelers have stabilized what had been a shocking trouble spot, but haven't fully counteracted the lack of early takeaways yet. That's probably good news for the rest of the season...because there's still some regression toward the mean due to take place. If that happens in the playoffs, the Steelers will enjoy a return trip to the Super Bowl. It's very odd for THAT defense to have so few takeaways this deep in the season. We're right at one per game for a dozen outings. Cleveland has been very conservative this year, which has helped them stay close on the scoreboard even if they're not really accomplishing much in the big picture. The Browns are 4-8 straight up...but rank in the bottom four of some respected computer ratings we've seen.

JIM HURLEY has been in contact with his on site sources and his friends behind the line in Las Vegas and offshore to make sure you get the right side in this one. Our Thursday Night Special can be purchased online with your credit card a few hours before kickoff right here at the website. We'll also have some BONUS basketball for you, possibly in the Harvard/UCONN game that will be nationally televised by ESPN2. The later tip with West Virginia at Kansas State is also under consideration.

Thursday's action will help kickoff a big spots weekend that will include Army/Navy in college football, a FANTASTIC Saturday in college basketball featuring many of the best teams in the country (including Ohio State at Kansas), and then another Stocking Stuffer Sunday in the NFL. If you'd like to talk about full season or combination packages, call us in the office at 1-800-323-4453.

That wraps up today's report. For those of you who are fans of the NFC, we'll talk about the playoff picture in that conference Sunday when we preview the NY Giants/Dallas game on NBC. Make sure you're with us EVERY DAY so you know what's REALLY going on in the world of sports!

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