Thanksgiving games are already here. Can you guys believe it? The season is flying by. The best of the three holiday games is on our airwaves — the NFL Network is showing the Giants at Broncos matchup on Thursday night. Overall, this week’s slate lacks the playoff luster of recent weeks. Of course, we may have the game of the year on Monday night, but for the most part, this week is heavy on divisional matchups. Unfortunately, precious few of them involve two teams still realistically in the postseason picture. As always, we’ll start with the best of the bunch, and Happy Thanksgiving!:
Patriots at Saints: The only franchise to have an undefeated regular-season since the league moved to a 16-game schedule faces a team that’s already 10-0. The game is loaded with offensive talent and features two of the greatest quarterbacks alive. The Saints expect to have a pretty full complement of defenders for this game — CB Tracy Porter has the only long-term health issue — and we’ve got some of the best game planners going. New Orleans has managed its injuries in recent weeks with an eye on this massive contest. The Patriots just missed snapping the Colts’ undefeated run two weeks ago on the road in a dome, and now get a chance to try it all over again against the Saints. I’m expecting epic ratings for this tilt.
Steelers at Ravens: Entering the season, a lot of people expected both of these AFC North rivals to be in the playoffs; now neither is assured of anything. They produced three epic games last season, including their last meeting, in the AFC Championship Game. These grudge matches are always incredibly hard-hitting. Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger is coming off a head injury, and his status will be evaluated through the week. We already know defensive stars Terrell Suggs and Troy Polamalu are out. The Ravens need to sweep the Steelers to get back in the postseason. Baltimore’s offense is sputtering, but the defense is regaining its swagger. Pittsburgh has dropped two in a row all of a sudden, and is in a November funk. A huge momentum game for both teams.
Giants at Broncos: New York pulled out of its four-game freefall last week, while the Broncos continue to plummet after starting 6-0. Denver’s defense has been solved and its offense lacks a downfield element — which is the best way to challenge a wounded Giants defense at this point. Neither team is running the ball the way they’d like. Josh McDaniels is suddenly in crisis mode, and his lack of head-coaching experience will now be tested. The Broncos are by no means assured of even a wild-card spot, and they need to try to keep pace with the streaking Chargers. If the Giants can stack a few wins together, they could end up back atop the NFC East.
Colts at Texans: If Indy hasn’t already cemented the AFC South, well, a win here over Houston and a loss by Jacksonville would do it. The Colts are pretty much already at the point in which they can rest guys and start planning for the playoffs — unless that pursuit of an undefeated season drives them. It’s yet another statement game for a Texans team perpetually trying to prove itself as a true playoff force. The Colts have been vulnerable lately and could easily be coming into this game off consecutive defeats. This could be an offensive showcase for both clubs. The Ravens showed again last week the importance of running at Colts ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis and protecting the quarterback that way.
Bears at Vikings: It’s probably already too late for the Bears to salvage a playoff run, but they need something to feel good about after giving away far too many games this season, including their last two. The two new glamour quarterbacks added to the NFC North this offseason meet up at a time when Brett Favre is on top of the world and Jay Cutler is looking awful, throwing wildly, missing wide open receivers downfield and tossing a staggering amount of picks. The Vikings win this one and they, like the Colts, can start thinking about managing injuries, planning for the playoffs, maybe even giving Favre a game off (dare I ask it given the games-played streak?). Throwing a wrench into Minnesota’s season will motivate Chicago, but the mental state of that team can’t be too healthy right now with the way this season has gone off the rails.
Browns at Bengals: On paper it looks like no contest, but the Bengals will always be the Bengals until they show it in the playoffs. Last week’s slip against the Raiders was potentially damaging, and anything less than a win here would open the door even more for Baltimore or Pittsburgh to mount a threat (though sweeping both is the ultimate tiebreaker). Cleveland’s offense actually had a pulse last week — albeit against the Lions — and don’t forget it took a field goal very late in overtime for the Bengals to beat the Browns earlier this season. This could very well be a Cincy blowout win, but the longer it stays close, the more doubt might creep in. The Bengals need Cedric Benson and the power running game back.
Raiders at Cowboys: I just have a funny feeling about this one, the same way I did about Dallas/Washington last week (the Cowboys were ridiculously lucky to win that game). This could turn out to be a tricky little encounter as well. The Raiders, when they play with some passion, can scare you, or beat you (ask the Eagles and Bengals). They have a big defensive front, which matches up well with Dallas’ huge offensive line. The Cowboys are always battling self-doubt, especially on offense, and have been horrible the last two weeks on that side of the ball. Bruce Gradkowski has given Oakland some life on offense and this dude hates to lose and battles his butt off. That quarterback change makes Oakland much more dangerous on offense, and less inclined to simply implode. Tony Romo could find himself pressured, especially down a starting tackle, and expect the Raiders to bracket Jason Witten and force someone else to make plays.
Redskins at Eagles: This should be a perfect time for the Eagles to start stacking some wins together. The Redskins, now even further depleted at running back and offensive line after last week, simply cannot score enough to be a competitive team. But the defense is playing with bite. Washington’s biggest problem on that side of the ball is breakdowns against the big play, and DeSean Jackson owns them. Redskins CBs like Carlos Rogers and Fred Smoot are burned on the double move far too often, and LaRon Landry is not proving to be enough of a deterrent on the back end. The Eagles did just enough to win the first time around, on a night when Washington was just giving the ball away. Philly could be in for a tough fight again with the Redskins having nothing to play for but pride.
Jaguars at 49ers: If nothing else, this should be a smashmouth street fight, with a heavy emphasis on the ground game. Both teams are coached by former Baltimore Ravens assistants who love no-nonsense, physical football. Jacksonville has probably been the least impressive six-win team in the NFL, but another ugly victory here and its playoff resume keeps looking good. I figure the Jaguars will sell out to stop Frank Gore and the run game any way possible, because Alex Smith can’t win games. The Jaguars need to travel well and be ready to play from the opening snap.
Cardinals at Titans: Kurt Warner is expected to be back for this one after leaving last week at halftime with a head injury. Arizona is taking on a much-needed fierce look running the ball, but the Titans are great against the run. Attacking with the pass is still the Cards’ strength, but Tennessee’s secondary has been much better lately. The Titans want to run the ball as much as possible, but the Cards are very good at stopping it. This could be a game for some Vince Young trickery.
Panthers at Jets: If this game was played a week ago, it would have been much bigger, but both teams lost vital contests and will have a hard time pulling back into the playoff scene with so many teams to catch or pass. Much like the Panthers meeting with the Dolphins last Thursday, these two teams will try to slam the ball on the ground and not let their limited quarterbacks cost them the game. Mark Sanchez is mastering the three-or-four-pick game lately, and Jake Delhomme could teach a course on the topic. The team that controls and protects the ball the best will win.
Dolphins at Bills: Miami’s Ricky Williams is the comeback story in the league, and the Dolphins will have to continue riding him with Ronnie Brown out. They curtailed the Wildcat last week, but could sprinkle in more Pat White against Buffalo. The Bills are beat up and struggle against the run. The Dolphins will try to out-physical them and keep it simple. That should be a winning approach here. Buffalo’s secondary is a strength and there is no sense having Chad Henne chuck it around too much. The Bills finally saw some life from T.O. … But also those crucial drops.
Packers at Lions: The game has plenty of history on its side, if nothing else. Green Bay cannot afford to take the Lions lightly. This is a must-win situation for a Packers team that could still make a move in the playoff picture. Doing so without Al Harris and Aaron Kampman will be tough, however. The Lions have to navigate another injury for rookie QB Matthew Stafford, who is coming off a five-touchdown effort. After getting swept by the Vikings, NFC North wins are critical for Green Bay. Ryan Grant is looking better of late and Aaron Rodgers is having an excellent season.
Chiefs at Chargers: Kansas City has been much improved the last month. Getting rid of Larry Johnson was welcomed all around, and Chris Chambers and Jamaal Charles are both making big plays on offense. The Chiefs should be flying coming off a win over Pittsburgh and the Chargers may be a tad too high, themselves. Philip Rivers is probably the difference, even if the Chargers aren’t quite giving it their A game. Still, much like that Cowboys/Raiders contest, I think this one could end up being a whole lot more interesting than some would think.
Bucs at Falcons: Atlanta’s loss to the Giants last week could end up hanging over the team for a long time. The Falcons almost pulled off a season-changing comeback, but instead are still stuck in a rut. With Michael Turner not a sure thing to return, you have to be concerned. Matt Ryan better stay away from Ronde Barber in the passing game, given the quarterback’s recent funk. The Bucs need to get rookie passer Josh Freeman hooked up with Antonio Bryant to add a vertical element to the offense.
Seahawks at Rams: Nothing at stake here save for a battle for the NFC West basement. St. Louis has given playoff teams like New Orleans and Arizona a battle recently, and while Marc Bulger is banged up again, riding Steven Jackson is the way to go no matter what. Seattle is reeling and changes in team management could be ahead. Injuries have been too much to overcome and the Seahawks could be picking in the top 10 again.