As the NFL's annual Thanksgiving Day tripleheader sets its course, rivalries, subplots and playoff berths are all for the taking.
The day will begin with an NFC North tilt with the Chicago Bears (5-6) against the host Detroit Lions (3-7-1) on FOX at 12:30 p.m. ET. Then turkey day action takes us to an annual Dallas destination as the Cowboys (6-5) host the Buffalo Bills (8-3) on CBS at 4:30 p.m. ET before the final course offers up the Atlanta Falcons (3-8) welcoming the archrival New Orleans Saints (9-2) at 8:20 p.m. ET on NBC.
Injuries and misfortune have derailed Detroit's hopes for postseason endeavors, but some salvation might be found in a win against the Bears, who are grasping to fleeting hope for the playoffs a season after winning the division. Chicago's defense is still more than formidable, but its ineffective offense continues to grab notice for all the wrong reasons. Nonetheless, the Bears have won three straight in the rivalry and a fourth in a row is a must to keep those postseason hopes, unlikely as they might be, still going.
The Cowboys lead the NFC East, but they've yet to beat a team with a winning record, which the Bills possess. Buffalo brings a staunch defense and burgeoning offense led by second-year signal-caller Josh Allen to Big D, as Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott and Amari Cooper must rebound from an abysmal showing against the Patriots in a 13-9 defeat. One of these teams is walking away from Thursday with its biggest win of the season so far.
Despite four weeks remaining in the season, the Saints can be the first team in the NFL to clinch a playoff berth and their division right along with it. A New Orleans win (or a tie coupled with a Panthers loss or tie) will wrap up the NFC South for the Saints and make this a Thanksgiving to celebrate. Added intrigue is the revenge factor, as the Falcons, with little left to play for other than seemingly saving coach Dan Quinn's job, pulled off a stunning 26-9 Week 10 upset when the teams first collided.
Get ready for firsts, seconds and thirds as the NFL provides three helpings.
Here are six things to watch for on Thursday.
Chicago Bears (5-6) at Detroit Lions (3-7-1)
- A season ago at this time, the Bears defeated the Lions, 23-16, on Thanksgiving. Matthew Stafford was quarterbacking Detroit and Chase Daniel was quarterbacking Chicago. It's the opposite this time around as the Lions have backup Jeff Driskel taking the reins as Stafford's season might well be done. (Editor's note: The Lions announced Wednesday night that rookie David Blough will start at quarterback in place of the injured Driskel.) Daniel is still the backup and Mitchell Trubisky is still the starter, though it's come with a huge helping of scrutiny as the Bears offense is 29th in the all the NFL land. Trubisky has been woeful with his 80.5 rating (30th), 5.8 yards per attempt (32nd) and 185.8 yards a game (32nd) providing ample evidence of his struggles. Facing a Lions defense that's 30th against the pass (29th overall), this is a game in which Trubisky has to show signs of life. Still, one would be hard-pressed to think the Khalil Mack-led defense won't lead the way if a win is to be had. Having allowed just 17.1 points per game (fourth in the NFL), the Chicago defense might not be as dominant as a season ago, but it's still excellent. Mack's 6.5 sacks are getting some notice in a negative light as more are expected, but he's still impacting the game on nearly every play and tied for the league lead with five forced fumbles.
- Kenny Golladay has been putting forth the breakout season many predicted and/or hoped for with 43 grabs for 792 yards and eight touchdowns. Those eight touchdowns are matched by teammate Marvin Jones and tied for second in the NFL. However, it should be of little surprise that the sidelining of Stafford has also stunted their production. In Driskel's three starts, Golladay hasn't caught more than four balls in a game and has just one touchdown over those three games. Jones has done a bit better, but hasn't had more than five catches in any of those games, hasn't had more than 46 yards receiving in each of the last two contests and has two touchdowns -- though scoring in bunches isn't new to him. Perhaps the most positive surprise during the Lions' most recent travails has been running back Bo Scarbrough. Signed to the active roster just the day before making his NFL debut in Week 11, he had a touchdown and 55 yards in 14 carries against the Cowboys. Last week, he had 98 yards in 18 carries against Washington. Kerryon Johnson has a bright future in Motown, but he is injury-prone and Scarbrough has at least shown he belongs in the NFL with his performances during these dim days in Detroit.
Buffalo Bills (8-3) at Dallas Cowboys (6-5)
- Chasing the Patriots in the AFC East and following their lead after New England confounded Dallas a week ago, the Bills defense will aim to shut down the Cowboys offense a week after it was held to nine points. Ranked third in total defense, Buffalo's strength is on that side of the ball, but its offense continues to improve. Second-season quarterback Josh Allen's betterment continues to be fun to watch and he's produced 22 total touchdowns so far (team-high seven rushing scores). But it's truly the running game, which Allen's a huge part of, that's settling in and complimenting the defense so well. With 1,531 yards rushing, the Bills have the fifth-ranked rushing attack and boast three players - Frank Gore (541 yards), Devin Singletary (490) and Allen (387) with more than 300 yards rushing. Singletary set career-highs with 21 carries and 106 rushing yards in his team's win over Denver last. And, of course, as the Bills travel to face the Cowboys, another wrinkle is Buffalo receiver Cole Beasley, who will be playing his former team after seven seasons in Dallas. It's not just defense that's leading to wins in Buffalo.
- Though they own a one-game lead in the dreadful NFC East, the Cowboys are not finding this time of the season to be blissful. With Dallas' failure to defeat a winning team having become a calling card, its latest failure was a 13-6 loss to the Patriots. The offense was held in check with receiver Amari Cooper going without a catch and Dak Prescott going without a touchdown throw for the third time this season (all losses). Still, the Cowboys' offense is No. 1 in the NFL and it's faced with a winning team that boasts the No. 3 defense. Nothing will be clinched with a Cowboys win and questions will still exist. But a win against a winning team with the offense defying a high-ranked defense is just what Dallas needs right now. That lies largely on the shoulders of Prescott, who is 5-2 against top-five defenses, but has lost the last two such matchups. Though he didn't get any last week, Prescott has 21 scoring throws this season (tied for fourth) and the Bills have given up just seven (second-fewest). Against formidable competition this season, Dallas has backed down. Now's the time in which the Cowboys need to back up their status as being better than just the frontrunners in the NFL's weakest division.
New Orleans Saints (9-2) at Atlanta Falcons (3-8)
- By all accounts, the Saints are a balanced team and a bona fide Super Bowl contender -- hence why they can be the first to cinch up a playoff spot. But as quarterback Drew Brees faces off with a Falcons team that he's passed for 8,511 yards against (the most of any QB against Atlanta), it's wide receiver Michael Thomas who's the MVP candidate on this New Orleans team. Just the second player in NFL chronicle to haul in 100 catches in his team's first 11 games, Thomas' 104 receptions lead the NFL and have him on pace to set a new single-season league record. He's also leading the league in targets (124), receiving yards (1,242) and first-down catches (63). Moving the chains and making some noise, Thomas has stood out whether it's Brees or Teddy Bridgewater throwing to him. Though the Saints lost to the Falcons in shocking fashion earlier this season, Thomas still had 13 catches for 152 yards. Translation, nothing's slowing down the NFL's best wide receiver this season.
- Just as Drew Brees has thrown for more yards against the Falcons, Matt Ryan has done the same against the Saints. Ryan's 6,536 yards sit as the standard against the Saints, as do his 41 touchdowns. Despite a seeming abundance of talent on paper, the Falcons have struggled this season, but Ryan has largely remained his impressive, overlooked self. Ryan's averaging 293.4 yards per contest with 18 touchdowns in 10 games. However, he's coming off an awful showing in a loss to Tampa Bay in which he completed just 50 percent of his throws, had no touchdowns and an interception. Ryan has had plenty of success against the Saints and no matter the Falcons' struggles, he keeps on producing.