Happy Turkey Day everyone! NFL fans will be treated to what looks like three interesting and competitive games today. None of the six teams playing Thursday enter the day with a losing record; I can’t recall that ever being the case in previous years. Sit back, drink, feast and enjoy the company of your family and friends everyone.
★★★★ 6-4 Minnesota Vikings at 6-4 Detroit Lions
Thursday November 24 at 12:30 pm ET on CBS; Jim Nantz, Phil Simms and Tracy Wolfson.
Lions -2 . . . . over/under 42 . . . . DET -135, MIN +115
Detroit won the last meeting between these two in Week 9 in overtime, 22-16. The winning score came on a Matthew Stafford to Golden Tate 28 yard pass on the first possession of OT. The Vikings had completed a 79-yard drive for a TD to take the lead with just 23 seconds remaining. Stafford completed two passes against a soft zone prevent defense to move the ball to the 40, and inside the dome Matt Prater connected on a 58-yard field goal to force overtime. A defensive pass interference penalty against Xavier Rhodes on 3rd and 10 kept the drive alive with a new set of downs. After two rushes went nowhere Stafford hit Tate on the left sideline to complete the come from behind victory.
The two teams now share the lead in the NFC North. For Detroit a victory would be significant, as they would own the tiebreaker for the division title over Minnesota based on a season sweep between the two clubs. Earlier this year Minnesota was the last team to remain undefeated at 5-0 and was considered to be a strong contender for the NFC title. Four straight losses after their bye ended that talk, but after last week’s win against Arizona the Vikings are still in a great position to make the playoffs thanks to their hot start.
Minnesota’s pass rush seemed to be rejuvenated last week, but much of that can be attributed to Arizona’s inferior offensive line. Xavier Rhodes is one of, if not the best corner in the NFL right now. Neither team can run the ball, so the pass rush and pass coverage become vital Thursday. A key matchup to watch will be Lion CB Darius Clay versus Viking WR Stefon Diggs. In two games against the Lions Diggs has 19 receptions for 188 yards and two touchdowns.
With a betting line this low you can ignore the point spread, since so few games are determined by one or two points. Detroit has found ways to win close games this year, a mark of a good team; all six of their wins have been fourth quarter comeback victories. On the other hand I like Minnesota’s defense better, and it is always extremely difficult to sweep a division rival of comparable quality.
Prediction: Vikings 20, Lions 17
Vikings +2 . . . . under 42 . . . . . Minnesota +115
Final Score: Lions 16, Vikings 13 x
Vikings +2 x . . . . under 42 ✓ . . . . . Vikings +115 x
★★★★★ 6-3-1 Washington Redskins at 9-1 Dallas Cowboys
Thursday November 24 at 4:30 pm ET on FOX; Joe Buck, Troy Aikman and Erin Andrews.
Cowboys -6 . . . . over/under 52½ . . . . DAL -260, WAS +220
Dallas receives plenty of publicity, in large part because Jerry Jones is a camera and microphone magnet. The reality is that the Cowboys own the best record in the NFL, so they deserve a tip of the hat. As hard as Jones attempted to create a quarterback controversy this season, there was none to be had thanks to Tony Romo taking the high road. Since he is the quarterback Dak Prescott is the center of attention for sports talk show mediots, but the rookie QB is not the biggest reason for the Cowboys’ success. The Dallas offensive line wins the battle in the trenches play after play, keeping Prescott’s jersey clean and giving him plenty of time to throw. Couple that with the openings that unit provides running back Ezekiel Elliott, and even the best opposing defenses are in trouble.
Thanks to that superior offensive line Dallas is able to run the ball on more than 50% of their offensive plays, most in the league. The physical dominance wears down opponents; the Cowboys have the highest time of possession in the NFL at 33:08 per game, a positive differential of more than six minutes per game. Dallas ranks third in scoring (28.5 ppg), fourth in yardage (413), third in yards per play (6.2) and third on 3rd down 48.4%). The defense isn’t to shabby either, allowing just 18.7 points per game.
The one area that Dallas can be exploited is their pass defense. The Cowboys allow opponents to complete 69.3% of their passes, which is the second most in the league. Safety Barry Church (forearm) and corner Morris Claiborne (groin) have been ruled out. Washington QB Kirk Cousins should be able to pick the Dallas secondary apart with passes to tight end Jordan Reed (49 receptions, 67 yards per game, 30 first downs) and wide receivers Jamison Crowder (47 receptions, 64 yards per game, 6 touchdowns), Pierre Garcon (48 catches, 32 first downs) and DeSean Jackson (34 receptions, 13.7 yards per catch).
There is a hidden x-factor in this game. Washington not only travels on a short week, they just played on Sunday night. That is a difficult turnaround in any circumstance, even more so when playing a brutally physical offensive juggernaut. Washington has enough offensive firepower to keep it close, but I can’t see them being able to pull off a win in this scenario.
Prediction: Cowboys 34, Redskins 24
Cowboys -6 . . . . over 52½ . . . . . Dallas -260
Final Score: Cowboys 31, Redskins 26 ✓
Cowboys -6 x . . . . over 52½ ✓ . . . . . Cowboys -260 ✓
★★★★ 5-5 Pittsburgh Steelers at 5-5 Indianapolis Colts
Thursday November 24 at 8:30 pm ET on NBC; Mike Tirico, Cris Collinsworth and Michele Tafoya.
Steelers -8 . . . . over/under 49½ . . . . PIT -360, IND +300
The Colts will be without quarterback Andrew Luck, who suffered a concussion last week. A backup being asked to take over is always a difficult task, but being thrown into the fray with just three days to prepare is problematic for both the quarterback and offensive coordinator. To make this situation even more challenging the Indy offensive line has been a sieve (see: concussion, Luck).
Indianapolis will need to get their running game in gear or this could be a blowout. The ageless Frank Gore is averaging 84.3 yards from scrimmage this season. That kind of productivity can alleviate some of the burden from QB Scott Tolzien. Last week the Steelers were able to bottle up the Cleveland running game. Once that happened the Browns were forced to throw the ball, and Pittsburgh racked up eight sacks for a loss of 70 yards. The Steelers would love to see something close to that again; their defense had only 78 yards lost on sacks in the previous nine games combined.
I would be all in on Pittsburgh, but they have been terrible on the road. Philadelphia crushed the Steelers 34-3 and they looked putrid at Miami in a 30-15 loss to the then 1-4 Dolphins. Three weeks ago Pittsburgh was held scoreless until the fourth quarter at Baltimore; a win at Cleveland doesn’t really say much.
Indianapolis has been maddeningly inconsistent as well, losing winnable games and then turning around and beating the Packers in Green Bay just when I figured they were toast. Against better judgement I will go ahead and take Pittsburgh and a sizable number of points, despite their road woes.
Prediction: Steelers 27, Colts 13
Steelers -8 (two units) . . . . under 49½ (one unit) . . . . . Pittsburgh -360
Final Score: Steelers 28, Colts 7 ✓
Steelers -8 ✓✓ . . . . over 49½ x . . . . . Steelers -360 ✓
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