There have been many years (including, to some extent, 2015) when the NFL’s Thanksgiving games are merely entertainment for entertainment’s sake, with little on the line in terms of the standings.
This is not one of those years.
Every team that takes the field Thursday is at or above .500, and four of them are either all alone in or tied for first place in their divisions. All three games are of vital importance in the playoff race, starting with the opener between the Vikings and the Lions, which will go a long way in deciding the NFC North.
Did Minnesota pull their season back from the brink last week, or did they nab a bit of a fluky win against a fading opponent? That’s the question headed into their Thanksgiving day matchup in Detroit, the first of two straight Thursday games for Minnesota (they host Dallas in Week 13) that will go a long way toward deciding their season.
Lose to the Lions, though, and the Vikings will be almost out of runway—Detroit technically would be up just one game in the standings with a Thanksgiving win, but they also would hold the head-to-head tiebreaker on Minnesota by virtue of a season sweep.
The Vikings halted a four-game slide last Sunday with a 30–24 win over Arizona, but it took a 100-yard interception return and 101-yard kickoff return to get there. If those splash plays from the defense and special teams are not there against the Lions, from where do the points come? When these teams met in Week 9 (a dramatic 22–16 Lions OT win), QB Sam Bradford turned in one of his best performances of the season: 31 of 40 for 273 yards and a touchdown. Detroit is allowing a league-worst 73% completion percentage to opposing QBs, which if it holds would be the highest mark in NFL history.
Interim offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur has done little to revive a 32nd-ranked run game, so Minnesota’s chances rest on protecting Bradford. Remarkably, Detroit DE Ziggy Ansah is still without a sack this season, but the Lions have been able to generate a pass rush with guys like Kerry Hyder and Devin Taylor.
The Lions also will be focused on keeping their QB upright—the Vikings dropped Matthew Stafford just once in Week 9. The 97 yards Detroit rushed for in that game is its highest total since Week 3.
Both of these offenses are willing to nickel and dime their way down the field. Case in point: Detroit’s scoring drive to close the first half at Minnesota took 17 plays and chewed up 9:45 in game time. It won’t be easy for Stafford to stretch the field because the Vikings’ pass rush will be in his face, and the secondary is too talented. And the Minnesota attack is not really built to challenge downfield, either.
This certainly will not be like Detroit’s explosive 45–14 holiday win over Philadelphia last year. But Stafford has ripped game after game from the jaws of defeat this year. If this one goes down to the wire, the odds favor him.
Key player(s): Kyle Rudolph and Eric Ebron. Detroit has been dreadful covering tight ends this season, and while it did keep Rudolph in check back on Nov. 6, the Vikings’ pass-catching threat scored a 1-yard TD. Ebron hauled in seven receptions for 92 yards in that game, and he’s emerged as a favorite of Stafford’s.
Bold prediction: Ansah notches his first sack. Before the season, Detroit defensive line coach Kris Kocurek set the bar for Ansah at 20 sacks. He’s ... not going to get there. He has generated pressure, though, despite the lack of results. Time for a breakthrough.
The first Dallas-Washington showdown of the season, back in Week 2, feels like ages ago. It will be remembered as Dak Prescott’s first career win—he threw for 292 yards in a hard-fought 27–23 triumph on the road.
But the Redskins will tell you they should have won that game. They were ahead 23–20 in the fourth quarter and inside the Dallas 10 when Kirk Cousins threw an end-zone interception to Barry Church. They also settled for field goals on two second-half drives that started inside Dallas territory.
Cousins racked up 364 yards, completing passes to a whopping 10 different receivers along the way. He comes into Thursday hot, too, off a clinical dissection of Green Bay’s defense. Dallas continues to max out its talent on D, but if an Achilles’ heel exists it’s in the pass defense. Coordinator Rod Marinelli’s willingness to play a bit passive in coverage will be fine with Cousins, who despite a couple of bombs vs. the Pack is best at an intermediate range.
The issue for Washington, as is the case for any team playing Dallas: How do you stop Ezekiel Elliott? He was just on the verge of taking off when the rivals met earlier—he finished with 83 yards vs. the Redskins, then averaged 142.2 yards his next four games. Washington’s run defense has been stingier since mid-October, but it’s not particularly imposing or deep along the front line.
Perhaps the best subplot of Thursday’s action will be Dez Bryant vs. Josh Norman, should Washington up for that matchup. Bryant is coming off a two-TD showing against Baltimore.
This is a healthy line given how Washington is playing of late (6-1-1 since losing to Dallas) and Kirk Cousins’s rising confidence. The Cowboys’ defense might force another turnover or two, but it could have a tough time getting off the field otherwise.
That said, the Redskins will be seeing a different Prescott-Elliott combo that they got back in Week 2. The offense is more dynamic overall, and Elliott is gashing defenses behind the dominant Dallas line.
Make it 10 straight for the ’Boys.
Key player: Robert Kelley, RB, Redskins. While Elliott, understandably, will be a focus of Thursday’s coverage, Washington has its own emerging rookie back. “Fat Rob,” an undrafted product out of Tulane, has seized hold of the No. 1 job in Washington. He has averaged 22.3 carries and 105.7 yards the past three games. He did not play in Week 2.
Bold prediction: Cole Beasley has a 100-yard receiving day. The Cowboys will force feed Elliott as much as possible. However, if Norman succeeds at all in taking away Bryant, Prescott will have to turn to Beasley and TE Jason Witten to move the sticks through the air. Beasley had 75 yards in the earlier matchup.
“There is no doubt in my mind that he is going to play,” Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger said of Andrew Luck, who entered concussion protocol following a Week 11 win over Tennessee. Big Ben’s about the only one expressing confidence that Luck will take the field Thursday night.
Luck still had not been cleared for action as of Tuesday’s practice, and the Colts were prepping to go to battle with backup Scott Tolzien under center. Tolzien made two starts for the Packers in 2013, when Aaron Rodgers was out of the lineup—he threw five interceptions to one TD and finished 0-1-1. He has not throw a regular-season pass as a Colt.
Obviously, it’s huge news if Luck cannot play, especially in a game with so much on the line. The loser here can all but forget about a wild-card spot, and Indianapolis could slip two games back of the AFC South lead again if Houston knocks off San Diego Sunday.
The Colts’ passing attack has players that can burn defenses deep, led by T.Y. Hilton, but Tolzien’s presence likely would mean much more in the way of work for TEs Jack Doyle and Dwayne Allen. RB Frank Gore also will have to come through with a much bigger effort than he’s had most weeks—Gore has topped 100 yards just once in 2016; he’s averaging fewer than 4.0 yards per carry for the second straight season. Cam Heyward being on I.R. could help in that regard, but the Steelers did just stymie Cleveland’s ground game last week.
For as much of an issue as Luck’s absence would be, the Colts also have problems awaiting on defense. They have allowed more yards passing (284.5 per game) than any team, with just three interceptions to show for their efforts. While Roethlisberger was held in check at Cleveland (167 yards), he lit up Dallas for 408 yards and three TDs two weeks back.
With Luck on the field, this would have the potential to be a thrilling cap to the Thanksgiving slate. Without him ...
The Colts don’t have the time, nor does Tolzien give them the option, to shift the game plan drastically. It will have to be Luck-lite, and considering how much of that offense is based on Luck’s reads and improvisation, the Colts will be limited. Doesn’t mean they will get shutout or anything, just that Tolzien will have to be close to flawless and everyone else will have to make plays.
That could work if it’s a low-scoring game. The Steelers can avoid such an outcome.
Key player: Artie Burns, CB, Steelers. Again, the Colts may not have much desire or ability to test Pittsburgh on the boundary if Luck’s out, but Burns could be the target of any shots they do take. He and Ross Cockrell are the 1-2 punch outside at cornerback, meaning head-to-head matchups with Hilton, Donte Moncrief and anyone else Indianapolis swings wide.
Bold prediction: Ben Roethlisberger scores a rushing TD. Roethlisberger doesn’t take off and run much (eight attempts this year), but he will go when he has to—he ran one in a couple weeks back against Dallas. If the Colts drop extra bodies into coverage and can’t get home with a base pass rush, he may have no choice but to take off again at some point.