What to watch for in the three Thanksgiving games

For some, it's the food and endless fountains of drink. For others, it's family. For those of you choosing to read this, though, Thanksgiving hinges equally on a third, brilliant factor: Football.

With three compelling games set for Thursday, let's dig right into what we'll be looking for from each showdown.

Here we go:

  1. Sole possession of the NFC North is up for grabs when these longtime foes launch Thursday's drama. The Vikings broke a four-game losing streak in Week 11, but Minnesota's offense did so with just 217 yards against the Cardinals. The Vikings haven't run the ball for 100-plus yards since Week 4, but quarterback Sam Bradford is quietly enjoying a solid season, on pace for career bests in completion percentage, yards per attempt, touchdown-to-pick ratio and passer rating. He's at his best when tight end Kyle Rudolph and ascendant wideout Stefon Diggs break free. That's more than possible against a Lions defense currently ranked as the worst unit in the league by the statheads over at Football Outsiders.
  1. Detroit has long served as low-wattage fodder on Turkey Day, but this year's squad has been a thrill to watch. Every Lions game has been decided by seven points or less. Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford -- long one of the NFL's most frustrating passers -- has shined as a two-minute magician in 2016. Stafford's six comeback wins after trailing in the fourth quarter mark an NFL first over 10 games. It's almost entirely on Stafford, too, with Detroit failing to produce a 100-yard rusher since coach Jim Caldwell was hired in 2014. The question is whether the Lions can keep it going against a Vikings defense that hasn't allowed a 100-yard receiver all season and saw its pass rush awaken against Arizona with a season-high 15 hits on the quarterback.
  1. NFL Media scribe/lifelong Lions fans Kevin Patra is suspicious of Detroit's campaign, telling me via email: "Lions fans typically add a side of skepticism (and sometimes nausea) to their Thanksgiving meal. This season, with no ground game and a bend-and-sometimes-break defense, the sense of the bottom falling out on Caldwell's team is real. When every win comes on the back of a Stafford-led, fourth-quarter comeback, it's hard to fault fans for waiting for the magic to stop. At some point, the defibrillator could run out of spark. Thursday's tilt against the Vikings will tell the story of whether this Lions team has a better shot to make the playoffs or, once again, rip out fans' hearts before New Year's."
  1. SOMETHING SMART TO BLURT OUT DURING THE GAME WHILE SURROUNDED BY RELATIVES: "Is it me, or does Lions guard Graham Glasgow look like a transcendent Russ Bolinger, the reliable blocker who toiled for Detroit from 1976 to 1982 before finishing his under-the-radar career with the Los Angeles Rams?"

Note: As a largely dismissed vegan, I have nothing to offer 99.4 percent of readers in the realm of Thanksgiving cooking tips. In response, I've corralled NFL Media scribe/foodie Conor Orr to provide readers with a sustenance-based recommendation for each game:

  1. FOOD-BASED INPUT FROM ORR: "This has been the year of the brussel sprout, and the perfect way to kick off your Thanksgiving Day would be to deep fry a pound of quartered sprouts and toss them in a chile caramel sauce. Don't be intimidated. Bon Apetit has an easy-to-follow recipe that will involve just one trip to your local, heartless, high-end food store. Fresh ginger is important, as is some good lemongrass. Don't succumb to the temptation of pouring too much fish sauce -- a little goes a long way."
  1. Remember last week's breezy watercooler chatter about Baltimore's "top-ranked" ground defense slowing Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott? Total garbage talk. Nobody has stopped the shoe-in Rookie of the Year, with Elliott operating as an eye-popping, freaky specimen from wire-to-wire. Having already crossed the 1,000-yard barrier and galloping at a healthy 4.9 yards per tote, the first-round gem must be neutralized for any chance to beat Dallas. The Redskins held Elliott to his second-lowest output in Week 2 (21/83/1), but that was before the rookie truly took off. It's worth noting that Washington's up-and-down run defense has kept teams to under 100 yards in four of the past five games.
  1. The NFC East is historically over-televised -- to ponderous levels -- but nobody can argue with this matchup getting national love. Fans will be treated to a pair of white-hot quarterbacks in Dak Prescott and Kirk Cousins. After officially wresting away the Cowboys' job from Tony Romo, Prescott on Sunday became the first rookie in NFL lore to post 300-plus passing yards, multiple passing touchdowns and zero picks in back-to-back games. His multiple scoring throws in five straight starts have been matched by only three other rookies: Dan Marino, Russell Wilson and (most importantly) Charlie Conerly of the 1948 Giants. As for Cousins, the Redskins passer leads a second-ranked attack piling up 471 yards per game over their past five outings. After a slow start to the year, Cousins has scorched secondaries with 16 touchdowns and four picks over his past eight games. When he hits a groove, Cousins this season looks as good as any passer in the NFC.
  1. The Steelers lit up Dallas for 400 passing yards two Sundays ago. With cornerback Morris Claiborne (groin) and safety Barry Church (forearm) out of the lineup on Thursday, look for Cousins to test the field deep after frying the Packers for 375 yards and three scores in Week 11. Wideout Jamison Crowder looms as one of the most fascinating players we'll see on Thanksgiving. He's a lightning-fast target who can separate from coverage and blow games wide open with his return skills. Fully in bloom as a pass-catcher, all three of Crowder's 100-yard games have come over the past month. If Dallas manages to quiet him, they'll still be charged with slowing down deep-threat DeSean Jackson and electric tight end Jordan Reed.
  1. CASUALLY DROP THIS NUGGET WHILE COUCHED NEXT TO A SEMI-SAUCED UNCLE PHILBERT: "Some say we're tumbling toward an emotionless, robot-based society, but I haven't given up on the power of the human spirit. Not when Next Gen Stats tells me that Cowboys safety Byron Jones has traveled 17,014 yards on the field this season."
  1. FOOD-BASED INPUT FROM ORR: "Here's a great appetizer for your politically unpredictable uncle who left his hometown once because it was snowing and his favorite beer distributor had to close because their garage door wouldn't open to serve out the back. Take your boneless popcorn chicken and toss it in Gochujang -- a delicious Korean chili paste that pinballs between sweet, spicy and savory -- and introduce him to another part of the world. Perhaps he won't agree with your thoughts on Bernie Sanders, but you can both take solace in knowing that there are better foods out there in the American wilderness."
  1. With Andrew Luck sidelined by a concussion, the Colts will be forced to start 29-year-old backup Scott Tolzien. There's no understating what losing Luck means to this offense. His ability to make plays against constant pressure -- no team blitzed more than Tennessee vs. Indy in Week 11 -- and his recent chemistry with T.Y. Hilton (11 catches for 179 yards and a touchdown over the past two weeks) can't be duplicated by Tolzien, who hasn't thrown a meaningful pass since 2013. It's not a Curtis Painter-level crisis for the Colts, but it's close.
  1. Which Steelers offense will we get? After throwing the playbook at Dallas in Week 10, Pittsburgh treated Sunday's win over the Browns like a preseason game. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger directed a straightforward attack that unleashed star running back Le'Veon Bell with a whopping 36 touches for 201 total yards. In awful weather, Big Ben amassed just 167 passing yards, his lowest total since 2013. Roethlisberger was 0-for-4 on throws of 20-plus yards, but Indy's temperate dome will allow Pittsburgh to press a Colts defense ranking an ugly 30th against the pass.
  1. Is James Harrison human? The ageless Steelers pass rusher set a franchise career record for sacks (77.5) in Sunday's drubbing of the Browns. Still a dangerous quarterback-destroyer, Harrison was at the center of a swarming Steelers defense that battered Cleveland signal-callers with eight sacks. Pittsburgh's pass rush has been inconsistent, but the Steelers match up well against a Colts line that has allowed an outrageous 35 sacks -- second most in the NFL. Tolzien could be in for a long day if Harrison, Lawrence Timmons, Ryan Shazier and Stephon Tuitt bring the house.
  1. STUN AUNT GEMMA WITH THIS GRIDIRON TIDBIT: "The second quarter of this Steelers-Colts game has a deliciously hostile feel to it. Not unlike the ominous hours of quiet anticipation before The White Lotus Rebellion against the Qing Dynasty of China in 1796. Agree or disagree?"
  1. FOOD-BASED INPUT FROM ORR: "Do you have a hangover from a night of pre-Thanksgiving drinking with the people you didn't like from high school, but are feeling a twinge of social inferiority now that you know one of those jerks has a great job with Merrill Lynch trading oil futures in a glass-encased corner office somewhere in beautiful downtown Berlin (He's SO WORLDLY! But probably lonely. You're doing fine. He quotes American Psycho but doesn't GET IT.) Here's a way to class up your greasy appetite while showing everyone from high school that you finished Infinite Jest and are ready to explore even broader horizons. Everyday Maven has a wonderful recipe for Edamame Cakes that involve just a few simple ingredients (salt, pepper, garlic, chili paste) but produce a flavorful fried dish that will wash away Wednesday's regret. LOOK WHO SHOULD HAVE BEEN DEBATE TEAM CAPTAIN NOW."
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