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Thanksgiving Preview: 10 things to watch

If you squinted hard enough last Sunday, Joe Flacco provided hope. Baltimore fans looking for a reason that thisRavens team could go on a late-season run saw some familiar throws from Flacco.

The Ravens quarterback uncorked five to six beauties against the Jets' defense, including two bombs down the field. Flacco also completed a handful of tough passes on the run that showed off his arm strength.

The plays were reminiscent of the first half of the Super Bowl, when Flacco was finishing off his epic playoff run. That Ravens' offense isn't returning. The running game is broken beyond repair and the Ravens don't have enough "chain-moving" receivers. (Although Dennis Pitta's eventual return will help.)

The Ravens' offense doesn't need to be great Thursday night to beat the Steelers in what I see as the key AFC wild-card race of the season. Flacco just needs to complete a handful of those ridiculous deep passes to Torrey Smith, Tandon Doss and Jacoby Jones. Pittsburgh's safeties (Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark) are prone to big mistakes and giving up big plays.

After a rough season, Flacco and the defending champions have a great opportunity to right the ship Thursday night. The rest of the Around The League crew likes the Steelers to win, but I can't shake the feeling Flacco is due for another hot streak.

*We put together a special Thanksgiving "Around The League Podcast" this week. Here are three more things to watch in each game: *

  1. With Matt Flynn set to make his first start since returning to the Packers, the quarterback will be under the microscope as Green Bay tries to improve its 0-3-1 record sans Aaron Rodgers. Flynn looked more comfortable running the no-huddle offense while driving the Packers to a comeback tie last week. If he struggles, don't be surprised if Mike McCarthy goes to the no-huddle early. The last time Flynn started against the Lions his performance earned him millions of dollars.
  1. Perhaps the most important offensive player on either team on Thanksgiving is Eddie Lacy. The Packers' offense looked lost when the running back missed the final two drives of overtime with an asthma inflammation last week. He racked up 99 yards in the Week 5 meeting against Detroit and has improved immensely since then. Lacy faces a Lions front seven that is defending rushers very well, giving up just 43.8 yards rushing per game over their last five contests. Whoever wins this matchup should control the game.
  1. Matthew Stafford's play is microcosm of the Lions' season. When he commands the pocket and drops dimes the Lions are lethal. When he is overshooting receivers and rushing his mechanics the Lions' offense goes into hibernation. With the Lions' chances of winning the NFC North hanging in the balance, Stafford must play better than he has the past two weeks.
  1. Darren McFadden is questionable for the Raiders. Oakland has found an identity on offense with Rashad Jennings running the ball, and should pound Dallas' suspect rush defense. The Raiders are third in rushing yards this season and fourth in yards per carry. Terrelle Pryor's scrambling was a huge part of that, but Oakland has still moved the ball on the ground the last two weeks. New York's rushing attack steamrolled the Cowboys last week.
  1. Raiders starting quarterback Matt McGloin has done a nice job making quick decisions since taking over. His second start wasn't quite as strong as his first. McGloin should benefit from left tackle Jared Veldheer coming off injured reserve to play his first game of the season. He's expected to rotate on passing downs.
  1. After a strong start to the season, Tony Romo hasn't topped 7 yards per attempt in any game since Week 5. The Cowboys' passing attack just hasn't been that effective. This is a game where they should get healthy and make noise.
  1. No. 1 wide receivers have enjoyed playing the Steelers' secondary of late. Josh Gordon finished with 14 catches for 237 yards and one touchdown Sunday, a week after Calvin Johnson piled up six receptions for 179 yards and two scores. Does this mean Torrey Smith is primed for a similarly productive night? The Ravens were aggressive in their vertical attack last Sunday against the Jets. Don't be surprised if Baltimore takes its shots down field Thursday.
  1. The Ravens lined up backup quarterback Tyrod Taylor under center for five of 62 snaps Sunday, debuting their Wildcat package against the New York Jets. The formation found limited success and drew the criticism of Joe Flacco, who disparaged the package both after the game and on Tuesday, when he said the Ravens looked "like a high school offense." Will the Steelers see more of Flacco lined up as a wide receiver? Flacco certainly hopes not.
  1. In a coin-flip game, look to the quarterback position. While Flacco has struggled to recapture his brilliant form from last season's playoff run, Ben Roethlisberger is quietly having another strong season. He's been particularly good in the past two weeks, posting back-to-back passer ratings over 100 with six touchdowns and no interceptions. A healthy Roethlisberger gives the Steelers the edge -- on Thursday and beyond.

The latest "Around The League Podcast" previewed all three of the big Thanksgiving games on the schedule.

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