Thanksgiving Day isn’t all about food; football is also a tradition on the final Thursday in November. Let’s take a closer look at the three games we’ll be watching while we stuff our faces.
GREEN BAY AT DETROIT
No team in the NFC North won last week, and not only has that made the divisional race tight, but it has also made it unlikely that the division will send more than one team to the postseason, making this a critical game for a pair of NFC North teams jockeying for position. Green Bay is winless in November without Aaron Rodgers, but somehow they are tied in the loss column with Chicago and Detroit and are still alive in the division. Meanwhile, the Lions had a golden opportunity to take control over the division after beating the Bears a few weeks ago, but instead they’ve lost two in a row, which has kept the division close and given this game massive importance, especially considering Detroit’s loss to Green Bay earlier this year.
The Packers got a glimmer of hope in the second half last week with the play of Matt Flynn, who should give Green Bay competent play at the quarterback position if Rodgers isn’t ready to return from his injury. Another key for the Packers will be running back Eddie Lacy, who’s rushed for at least 70 yards on seven occasions this year. The Lions have lost the last two weeks despite stopping their opponents rushing attack completely, so a viable ground attack would make things real tough for Detroit’s defense and give Flynn the support he needs to have success throwing the ball.
Of course, there could be a lot of pressure on Flynn if Green Bay’s defense can’t keep Matthew Stafford and the Detroit offense contained. The Packers only allowed nine points against the Lions back in Week 5, but they haven’t played all that well over the past month, as they’ve dealt with injuries, and in a dome stadium it could be tough for them to stop all the weapons the Lions have on offense. Expect this game to stay close into the 4th quarter, and expect the score line to get into the 20’s, but if it creeps into the 30’s, the Packers could be in trouble on the road without Rodgers in a game that both teams desperately need.
OAKLAND AT DALLAS
The Cowboys got their season back on track with a last-second field goal against the Giants, but they’re going to be in a dogfight with the Philadelphia Eagles down the stretch, as they hope to secure the NFC East, and losing to the Raiders at home is not something that can happen. Meanwhile, Oakland suffered a last-second loss to Tennessee last week and now they need to win out to have a chance at making the postseason, so this game has plenty of significant for both teams.
Due in part (but not completely) to injuries, Dallas has one of the worst defenses in the NFL against both the run and the pass. Of course, the Raiders may not have the kind of offense that can take advantage of that. Matt McGloin has been solid the past couple of weeks, but he’s not necessarily going to take a lot of shots downfield against a vulnerable Dallas secondary. However, Rashad Jennings could be a threat against the Cowboy’s rush defense, as Jennings has come on strong over the past month and is averaging five yards per carry on the season. If Jennings has success running the ball and McGloin isn’t asked to do too much, the Raiders are good enough to stay competitive with the Cowboys in a low-scoring game.
It’ll be up to the Dallas offense to overwhelm the Raiders early and crush any hope Oakland has of springing the upset. Dallas is best when they’re running the ball effectively, or at least when they’re trying to run the ball and have a balanced offensive approach. Even if the Cowboys think they can score points through the air, they have to give running the ball a chance, even against an Oakland defense that’s top-10 in the league against the run. If the Raiders can force Dallas to abandon their running game completely they could keep the one-dimensional Cowboys from running away with the game early and give themselves a chance in the second half, which is all they can ask for against a more talented team.
PITTSBURGH AT BALTIMORE
For a game between two sub-.500 teams, this one is quite intriguing. Both teams are trying to make a late-season playoff push and find themselves in a six-way tie for the final wildcard spot in the AFC with a record of 5-6. Both teams have a difficult schedule the final month of the season, with Pittsburgh’s being slightly more manageable, and the loser of this game will have a tough time crawling back into the mix, while the winner stays alive in the playoff race and will have a temporary lead over the rest of the teams competing for that final playoff spot.
These two teams met back in Week 7, with the Steelers winning an ugly game 19-16 on a last-second field goal, so this should be a fairly even matchup. Ordinarily these two teams would play a tough and physical brand of football between the tackles, but neither team has been particularly effective running the ball this year. Of course, both quarterbacks are capable or airing it out, but neither has a great collection of playmakers, and both defenses have defended the pass well this season, which could make for a game between two painfully inept offenses.
Knowing how important this game is, both teams should play it tight to the vest, which means the game could be decided by whichever team takes a risk and makes a big play at the right time, or which team makes a mistake at the wrong time. Either way, it’ll be an ugly but interesting way to cap off Thanksgiving night.