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Six things to watch for during 2021 NFL Thanksgiving Day tripleheader

The NFL will load our Thursday plates with a heavy helping of football that would make any Thanksgiving spread proud, and with all six teams in action coming off a loss, they'll be appropriately hungry. The Chicago Bears visit the Detroit Lions for a filling, starchy appetizer. Like mashed potatoes and stuffing, a Lions game is Thanksgiving tradition, and with it comes a good chance for Dan Campbell to crack the win column against a Bears team playing without exciting rookie quarterback Justin Fields. The late afternoon game between the Raiders and Cowboys, with the day's best quarterback battle between Derek Carr and Dak Prescott, qualifies as the turkey-and-gravy centerpiece of the Thanksgiving schedule. Finally, an evening watching talents like Josh Allen, Stefon Diggs and Cam Jordan in the Bills-Saints game beckons like the dessert table. Comas are coming in both food and football form, people.

Here are two things to watch for each Thanksgiving Day game.

Chicago Bears
2021 · 3-7-0
Detroit Lions
2021 · 0-9-1

  1. Which Andy Dalton will show up? There was a stark difference between Andy Dalton’s starts the first two weeks of the season and his Week 11 appearance in relief of Justin Fields. Before yielding the starting job to Fields, he sprayed the ball to the flats with low-risk, low-reward throws and averaged a paltry 5.3 yards per attempt. But last week, he let it rip downfield for 201 yards on 11 completions. Early Andy attempted eight passes of 10-plus air yards and none of 20-plus over 49 attempts. Week 11 Andy threw 12 passes of 10-plus air yards and eight of 20-plus in just 23 attempts. Whether the change is merely a function of game-planning or a conscious choice by Dalton, it will be interesting to see if he continues taking deeper shots downfield.
  2. Lions RB D’Andre Swift has a hot hand. A Lions offense reckoning with a punchless passing attack has turned to Swift in a more meaningful way over the last two weeks. The second-year back has posted the two highest rushing totals of his young career over the last two games (130, 136). Two weeks ago, he got a career-high workload of 33 carries against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Last week, he ripped the Cleveland Browns defense for the best single-game per-carry average of his career (9.7 yards). Bears LB Roquan Smith, a former teammate of Swift’s at Georgia, will look to shut down his college chum. Smith notched a career-high 17 tackles last week against the Baltimore Ravens.

Las Vegas Raiders
2021 · 5-5-0
Dallas Cowboys
2021 · 7-3-0

  1. Can Micah Parsons be blocked? The NFL’s most impressive rookie has been asked to step into a significant pass-rush void created by injured-reserve stints for Cowboys DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory. He’s been more than up to the challenge, amassing 5.5 sacks over his last three games, including a dominant performance against the Kansas City Chiefs in which he recorded seven pressures, two sacks and a forced fumble. He’s now got eight sacks on the season and, per NFL Research, he’s joined Von Miller as the only NFL rookies to post eight sacks and 40 tackles in their first 10 career games. Meanwhile, the Raiders’ pass protection has been problematic, so if Parsons is to be stopped, expect chip blocks aplenty.
  2. Game well-suited for Raiders DE Maxx Crosby. While the aforementioned Parsons has been a stellar defender for Dallas, so has Crosby. He’s not recorded a sack in more than a month, so he’ll be hungry for one against a Cowboys quarterback in Dak Prescott who will be without Amari Cooper (COVID-19 list) and possibly without CeeDee Lamb (concussion), as well. He’ll be most frequently matched up against Cowboys RT La’el Collins. But Crosby is much more than a pass rusher -- he’s the highest-graded edge defender in the NFL right now, per Pro Football Focus (92.2), and his disruptive play against the run is a big part of that. He’s a complete, three-down player who has the all-around game to not only get after Prescott but help contain the Cowboys’ fifth-ranked running game, as well.

Buffalo Bills
2021 · 6-4-0
New Orleans Saints
2021 · 5-5-0

  1. Can the Bills offense get back on track? If the Bills’ offensive stinker against the Jaguars a few weeks ago was just a blip, what was Sunday’s 15-point outage against the Colts? Forget the 45-point explosion that came in between -- that was against a miserably bad Jets defense. The Saints defense will be no such pushover. If the Bills are truly the offensive juggernaut they appeared to be throughout October, the time to rebound is now, as the Patriots have taken over a slim AFC East lead. If not, the Saints defense, which has been especially stingy against the run and in the red zone this season, could reveal deeper flaws in Buffalo.
  2. If the Saints are to win here, the running game will have to carry a heavy load. This Bills defense is tough to throw on, especially on third down, and injuries have rendered the Saints offense short on explosiveness. Ground and pound is the play here if you’re Sean Payton, at least well enough to set up play-action, but he’ll have to do it despite a multitude of key players missing or limited in practice this week. Banged up are both running backs (Mark Ingram, Alvin Kamara) and both tackles (Terron Armstead, Ryan Ramczyk). Grinding clock with the running game won’t be easy, but trying to match Josh Allen throw for throw with Trevor Siemian is even less of a plan.