By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts Gridiron Grinch (@footballfacts

There’s a famous and controversial scene in the holiday cartoon classic “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

Young Mr. Brown, directing the local Christmas pageant, is frustrated by the commercialization of the holiday and by the detachment of his playmates from the meaning of the big day.

He yells out on stage, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about!”

Little Linus steps forward: “Sure Charlie Brown. I can tell you what Christmas is all about.”

Linus takes the center stage spotlight and proceeds to quote the Book of Luke from the King James version of the Bible, describing the birth of Jesus Christ.

The scene was hugely controversial (and remains so today). Even in the 1960s, CBS executives felt the Biblical quote was too religiously divisive and nearly nixed the entire show.

Peanuts creator Charles Schulz stood firm, and the passage remained. The program has since become America’s most beloved Christmas classic and one of the most enduring animated shows in history.   

We thought of that scene Sunday night, after yet another flawed AFC contender pissed away a chance to take control of its own destiny here in the NFL crunch time of Week 15, just days before Christmas.

“Isn’t there anyone who knows what the AFC is all about!?”

The Cold, Hard Football Facts have told us since the start of the season that the Super Bowl champ would come out of the NFC. They’re screaming NFC! even more loudly today.


The Sad State of the AFC

The Denver Broncos had the AFC in their hands Thursday night. They proceeded to lay an egg against the ho-ho-hum Chargers, losing 27-20.

That loss ceded control of their own destiny to the New England Patriots, who beat the Broncos head-to-head back in Week 12.

The Patriots proceeded to lay an egg and against the ho-ho-hum Dolphins Sunday afternoon, losing 24-20.

That loss ceded control of their own destiny to the Cincinnati Bengals, who beat the Patriots head-to-head back in Week 5.

The Bengals proceeded to pay an egg against the ho-ho-hum Steelers Sunday night, losing 30-20.

Hell, with all those eggs rolling around, the AFC contenders must think it’s Eastertime, not Christmastime.

The AFC, to put it another way, is in a state of second-rate confusion. We try to sort it all out with this gift sack of stats and an overview of each AFC division and key contender today.

Here's what the AFC is all about after Week 15, with one contender (Baltimore) still to play tonight. Each team's AFC-title potential is rated on a scale of three Happy Charlie Brown Threes to Three Sad Charlie Brown Trees.


AFC East

New England Patriots

(10-4; No. 2 seed if the season ended today) – still control the division, with a two-game lead over the Dolphins with two games to play. But they had a chance to control their own destiny, with the inside track on the AFC No. 1 seed, before losing to Miami.

New England needs to win out (at Baltimore vs. Buffalo) to capture a first-round bye.

Key statistical strength: Bendability; Patriots remain one of the NFL’s premier bend-but-don’t-break defenses, a Belichick hallmark. But not a trait that in and of itself will carry you to the Super Bowl.

Key statistical flaw: Defensive Hogs (No. 26). Can’t stop the run (4.47 YPA; 26th); can’t get off the field on third down (31st).

New England's AFC title potential according to Charlie Brown Christmas-Tree-O-Meter (one happy tree):


Miami Dolphins

(8-6; No. 6 seed if the season ended today, pending outcome of Ravens-Lions Monday night) – The Dolphins took care of business against the Patriots and still have an outside shot at the division title if New England loses both games and they win both. Miami is the only team in the past 11 seasons to beat the Patriots out of the AFC East title, winning the crown in 2008 on tiebreakers (each team was 11-5).

Key statistical strength: No. 3 in Defensive Passer Rating, a quality which gives a team a fighting chance in any game.

Key statistical flaw: Downfield passing game. The ‘Fins average just 5.6 Real Passing YPA, tied for No. 15 with the Cleveland Browniest Browns.

Miami's AFC title potential according to Charlie Brown Christmas-Tree-O-Meter (two sad trees):



AFC North

Cincinnati Bengals

(9-5; No. 3 seed if the season ended today) – Marv Lewis’s crew historically fails to come up big when they have greatness or even just respectability within their grasp. And Sunday night’s loss to the struggling Steelers was just the latest – and ultimately predictable example. The Bengals close at the season at home against the Vikings – who just laid 48 on the Eagles – and the Ravens, in a season finale that looks like it might determine the AFC North title.

Key statistical strength: Pass defense. The Bengals are No. 2 in Defensive Real Passing YPA, allowing opponents just 5.28 yards each time they drop back to pass. Only the Seahawks are better.

Key statistical flaw: Not showing up each week. Cincinnati’s two biggest losses came against second-rate division foes Cleveland (17-6) and Sunday night against Pittsburgh (30-20).

Cincinnati's AFC title potential according to Charlie Brown Christmas-Tree-O-Meter (one sad tree):


Baltimore Ravens

(7-6; will have inside track on No. 6 seed with win over Lions Monday night) – The defending champs are right now the proverbial “team nobody wants to play in January” for reasons we saw unfold last January.

Key statistical strength: Defensive Hogs. Ray Lewis is long gone but Baltimore’s institutional strength remains its defensive front. The Ravens are No. 2 on the Defensive Hog Index as of Monday morning, among the league best against the run (3.79 YPA) and getting off the field on third down (opponents convert 32.47%). Great D-Hogs can make life miserable for any QB and give even a bad offense a fighting chance in the postseason. 

Key statistical flaw: moribund offense. The Ravens have virtually no playmaking ability this year, and among the worst in the league in Real Passing YPA, Offensive Passer Rating, Total Team Yards, the Offensive Hog Index and Offensive Rusher Rating.

Baltimore's AFC title potential according to Charlie Brown Christmas-Tree-O-Meter (one happy tree):


AFC South

Indianapolis Colts

(9-5; No. 4 seed if season ended today) – The Colts have been a substandard team all year. But at least they looked like a team that wanted it in Week 15, a rarity among AFC contenders. They whipped up the sad-sacked Texans, 25-3 – the third time this year they held an opponent to 7 points or less.

The Colts have a big test at Kansas City on Sunday before closing at the season against the Jaguars at home. They have plenty of incentive, with an outside shot at the No. 1 seed if they win out and the Broncos fall twice.

Key statistical strength: Rushing offense. The Colts rank No. 2 in Offensive Rusher Rating, behind only the Adrian Peterson-led Minnesota Vikings, with 12 rushing TDs and 1,528 yards on just 347 attempts (nifty 4.4 YPA average).

Key statistical flaw: Quarterback. Defensive line. Andrew Luck ranks in the bottom half of the league in every major measure of passing efficiency. The Colts also rank No. 24 on the Defensive Hog Index and struggle to stop the run. Ability to generate plays out of the defensive front is typically critical in postseason play.  

Indy's AFC title potential according to Charlie Brown Christmas-Tree-O-Meter (two sad trees):


AFC West

Denver Broncos

(11-3; No. 1 seed if season ended today) – Denver was looked upon as something of an unstoppable force early in the season. They’re still on pace to score more points than any team in NFL history, but otherwise appear as leaky as a refugee ship after the Vietnam War. A shoddy defense and Peyton Manning at QB in January are hardly sources of confidence. Still, the Broncos right now look about as good as it gets in the AFC, and need beat only the lowly Texans and Raiders (both on the road) to wrap up the top seed.  

Key statistical strength: Peyton Manning in the regular season. Manning and the Denver passing attack look like they’ll go wire-to-wire leading the NFL in every Quality Stat that measures passing efficiency.  

Key statistical flaw: Peyton Manning in the postseason. Defense. Given the history of monumental postseason flops, would anyone be surprised if the Broncos were held to 13 points in a playoff battle against the Bengals or Chiefs?  Denver also gives up 26.6 PPG (24th), which means a sup-bar game by the offense will probably spell defeat in the playoffs.    

Denver's AFC title potential according to Charlie Brown Christmas-Tree-O-Meter (two happy trees):


Kansas City Chiefs

(11-3, No. 5 seed if the season ended today) – Don’t look now, but the chiefs actually rank higher in scoring offense (28.5 PPG, 3rd) today than they do in scoring defense (18.2 PPG, 4th), after scoring 167 points in their last four games, including 56 Sunday against the Raiders. Still, the Chiefs are all but assured of going the three-game wildcard route, with at best a minimum of two road games, if they want to reach the Super Bowl. They close out the season with two playoff contenders: Indy and at San Diego.

Key statistical strength: Intelligence. For all their dominance on the scoreboard, Kansas City’s greatest trait is strong coaching and proficiency in situational football. The Chiefs are No. 3 in Scoreability, No. 1 in Bendability and as a result have been No. 1 on the CHFF Intelligence Index for much of the season. This team makes opponents pay for mistakes and does not beat itself. It’s a potentially lethal combination.  

Key statistical flaw: downfield passing game. Alex Smith and the Chiefs average just 5.48 Real Passing YPA, 28th in the NFL. They’ll need to do better to keep pace with the likes of Peyton Manning (who already beat them twice this year) or Tom Brady, who has shown he can make plays in the passing game even when throwing to tackling dummies at WR.

Kansas City's AFC title potential according to Charlie Brown Christmas-Tree-O-Meter (two happy trees):


San Diego Chargers

(7-7; still on outside looking in) – The Chargers inserted themselves into the playoff talk with their 27-20 win over the Broncos Thursday night. They road ahead is not easy, but not impossible. They must beat the Raiders and Chiefs, both games at home, and get a little help from the Dolphins and Ravens to capture the final wildcard spot. Stranger things have happened.

Key statistical strength: Passing offense and defensive efficiency (Bendability). Philip Rivers is having a career year throwing the ball and might be the talk of the NFL if not for yet another Peyton Manning record-setting season.  Defensively, San Diego’s statistical performance looks bad all around. But they are No. 10 today in scoring defense (22.2), which makes them nearly elite by the lowly standards of the AFC. Credit a bend-but-don’t-break defense: No. 5 in Bendability.

Key statistical flaw: Pass defense. The Chargers are getting gashed for 7.35 Real Passing YPA this season. Only the dismal Redskins are worse. They’re also No. 31 in Defensive Real QB Rating, ahead of only the dismal Falcons. Those numbers prophet a short-lived postseason stay – if they get there.

San Diego's AFC title potential according to Charlie Brown Christmas-Tree-O-Meter (three sad trees):