For too many years, the Thanksgiving football slate was a disappointment. Detroit and Dallas were two franchises stuck in mediocrity, searching for a quarterback. There was no handpicked prime-time game to save the day.
Those dark times are over. Thursday's trifecta might be the best-looking set yet, with two of the biggest games of the season in the NFC. Even the Detroit-Chicago opener is a crucial matchup including one team squarely in the playoff hunt and another team in a final "win or else" contest. We previewed the games on the Around The NFL Podcast, but for those not audio inclined ... here's what to watch for in all three games:
- We've talked before about Chip Kelly's attack as a quarterback-proof offense. There's nobody better to put this theory to the test than Mark Sanchez. The former Jets' starter has been productive out of the gate, throwing for 300-plus yards in three straight starts for the first time in his career. After a pristine performance against the Panthers in Week 10, though, Sanchez has thrown three picks over the past two weeks and seen his passer rating dip with every outing. Still, after his last appearance on Thanksgiving propelled the "Butt Fumble" into human consciousness, the Sanchize is in a much better situation this time around.
- As we mentioned on the podcast, the Cowboys are no fluke. They've won games all year behind the best young O-line in the NFC. Running back DeMarco Murray on Thursday can tie Emmitt Smith's team record with his 11th 100-yard outing of the season. Murray is a legitimate MVP candidate for a team running the ball with more frequency than all but two teams. It's on Philly -- whose 4,128 yards allowed this season are the second most in team history through 11 games -- to slow down this train.
- Let's not overstate it, but this game goes a long way toward deciding the NFC East. The Eagles can do themselves a huge favor by stealing this tilt before hosting the 'Boys again in two weeks. They'll play Seattle in between before closing the season against the Redskins and Giants. After Thursday, Dallas has the Bears, Eagles, Colts and Redskins in a stretch run that will decide this thrilling decision.
- Marc Sessler
This division remains the anti-NFC South and will no doubt be explosive down the stretch. San Francisco is playing some of its best football of the season and Russell Wilson continues to surprise us every week. Here's three things we're looking for:
- More of this. Russell Wilson is evolving in a very real and very entertaining way. There is no doubt that he is one of the five most enjoyable quarterbacks to watch every Sunday, and now he gets to match wits with one of the hottest defenses in football right now. Over the past two weeks, Wilson has an average passer rating of 107 and has completed almost 69 percent of his passes. He also has almost 150 rushing yards.
- Are we surprised that Aldon Smith already has a pair of sacks and is knocking on the door of double-digit pressures? He was destructive against the Giants while knocking off some rust and was even better the week after against Washington. Now that the 49ers have rounded out their rotation and Smith is getting premiere snaps again, they are harder to defend than ever. The Giants attempted to triple-team Aldon Smith at one point. Will Seattle deem that necessary?
- How will Pete Carroll play Colin Kaepernick (he is playing better than ever, don't you know)? It's the first of two matchups he has left against the 49ers' quarterback, both of which will have tremendous playoff implications. Kaepernick has a lifetime passer rating of 53.4 against Seattle and an average yards per attempt below 6. Will he run more of the same looks, knowing that they've been successful in the past, or will he dial up some opportunities for Bruce Irvin to run wild?
*- Conor Orr *
- In many ways, Matthew Stafford is Jay Cutler -- Stafford just has a few extra years left of preseason articles in which analysts expect big growth and a "breakthrough" before disappointment arrives in November. Stafford has enjoyed a flair for the dramatic, but this has been his worst season in many ways despite the team's record. He's erratic with his accuracy and decision-making. Coach Jim Caldwell has mostly reduced Stafford's wacky sidearm throws, but it hasn't translated into consistent play. He's just getting more support from his defense this year, and the addition of Golden Tate has saved the season.
- Stafford has struggled in his biggest games. Detroit is 3-10 in Stafford's nationally televised games, with Stafford tossing 19 touchdowns and 20 interceptions. He should improve those stats on Thursday because Chicago's defense is among the league's worst. Linebacker Lance Briggs is going to miss the game, and cornerback Kyle Fuller is a game-time decision. Fuller has a chance to take on his brother Corey, who is a receiver for the Lions.
- The Lions miss Nick Fairley. Ndamukong Suh and DeAndre Levy are playing at All-Pro levels, and Ezekiel Ansah is capable of taking over a game. But Detroit's defense hasn't been quite as dominant without Fairley, and this is a team you can throw on. The Patriots spread out Detroit last week to great success. Arizona hit a couple deep plays against them. Look for Cutler to go deep early and often, testing Detroit's secondary. Safeties James Ihedigbo and Glover Quin have formed a nice pair this year, but Detroit's cornerback depth is shaky.
- Gregg Rosenthal