The Thanksgiving Day Football Feast

The smell of Thanksgiving turkey in the air is the sure signal that the NFL stretch drive is about to begin, and we’ve got our usual set of three games to go with the holiday feast. None of the games have the juice of last year’s Green Bay-Detroit game, with the Packers still undefeated, or of the prime-time Harbaugh Bowl of San Francisco-Baltimore, but the fare we do have is still pretty good. So let’s dive into the Thanksgiving Day football matchups ahead—Houston-Detroit, Washington-Dallas & New England-NY Jets, with a college appetizer of TCU-Texas mixed in.

Houston-Detroit (12:30 PM ET, CBS): Detroit realistically ruined their season last week when they committed four turnovers and lost to Green Bay, falling to 4-6, while Houston played its worst defensive game of the year, but still escaped Jacksonville in overtime 43-37.

If the Lions are going to win this game, they have to find some way to slow the Houston pass rush that’s led by end J.J. Watt, but in the 3-4 scheme, the Texans can also attack from the outside linebacker spots with Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed. The best way to slow the pass rush is to run the ball. That’s not Detroit’s strength, but if they can get something going with Mikel Leshoure between the tackles, they’ll be tough to stop. The Houston secondary is beatable if the Lions can get Matthew Stafford some time.

Detroit got a consistent pass rush for one of the few times last season in the loss to the Packers, although Green Bay’s decimated offensive line could be the cause of that. The front four simply has to take over if they’re going to stop the Texans offense. As long as Houston has Arian Foster running—and they usually do—Matt Schaub can take his time, and either go deep to Andre Johnson or underneath to his tight ends, Owen Daniels and Garrett Graham.

In an interesting twist, Daniels, Graham and Watt all played their college ball at Wisconsin. As a Badger fan, that’s reason enough for me to take Houston and give the three.

Washington-Dallas (4:15 PM ET, Fox): Dallas is back in the playoff picture at 5-5 and a game back of both the New York Giants in the NFC East and Seattle for the final wild-card berth. Washington, at 4-6, could still make themselves a player if they can build off last week’s 31-6 win over collapsing Philadelphia.

There’s just not any reason to think the Redskins defense can stop Dallas because there’s not much reason to think the Redskins defense can stop anybody. The hope has to be that Tony Romo makes some mistakes down the field and perhaps outside linebacker Ryan Kerrigan can come up with some big plays on the pass rush. That’s not unreasonable, but even if everything goes well for the ‘Skins, they’re going to give up 21+ points. And the high 30s/low 40s is doable for Dallas if the experiment with the idea of playing mistake-free football.

The Washington offense will need to get something going in the conventional running game with Alfred Morris, and the rookie running back has been pretty steady for Mike Shanahan this year. I think Morris’ role will be key, because Dallas has good speed on the perimeter, both at outside linebacker and corner, and if the ‘Skins want RG3 to have some opportunities outside, they need to draw the defense in. Morris the primary way to do that, and this game is another reason why Washington misses tight end Fred Davis so much, as another way to command respect in the middle of the field.

Dallas is a three-point favorite at home. I’m a Redskins fan, sick of losing these Thanksgiving Day games and annoyed the Cowboys finagled their way into being a constant on Turkey Day (it was Detroit’s idea, how did Dallas graft onto the tradition?). So on that reasonable, rational basis, my troops have to get it done.

New England-NY Jets (8:20 PM ET, NBC): The AFC East race is all but over, with the Patriots holding a three-game lead on the entire division. But New England is still pushing for playoff position, as they try and chase down Baltimore for the AFC’s #2 seed and first-round bye. The Pats trail the Ravens by a game and lost head-to-head, so there’s no room for error. The Jets are 4-6 and two games back in the wild-card race, so there’s no room for error here either.

New England will be without Rob Gronkowski, whose forearm injury has him out to the end of December, but they will have Aaron Hernandez at tight end, and Tom Brady’s been really locked in for several weeks now. The Jets don’t have the playmakers on defense to force Brady into mistakes. It’s possible Rex Ryan’s team could play the same type of game they did when these teams met earlier in the year—turn it into a drawn-out fight, hold the Pats to field goals and perhaps pull an upset. It nearly worked in Foxboro before they lost in overtime and it could work again here. New England has to finish drives and that means Stevan Ridley has to run the ball inside the red zone.

Mark Sanchez finally played a good game in New York’s win over St. Louis last week, and he’ll have to play a very good game Thursday night. The Patriots defend the run pretty well, so even though the Jets need to make sure Shonn Greene gets his carries and the attack stays balanced, the way to beat New England is through the air. Sanchez needs to play his best game.

I’ve made my picks on the first two games more about myself than the games themselves, with Houston’s ties to the Wisconsin college program and my rooting interest in the Redskins. So why not go 3-for-3? I’m supportive of the Patriots, since I pull for Boston teams in the other three major sports, so I’ll pick them here. But they’re 6.5 point favorites at the betting window, and I wouldn’t give that many points. This one will be close.

And the TCU-Texas game goes at 7:30 PM ET on ESPN. We broke down the Big 12 bowl picture, from the championship race on down to the minor bowls and this game is big on both counts, especially for Texas, who’s still in position for the conference title.

The Longhorns have played better defense the last three weeks after being a disappointment on this side of the ball much of the year. Quarterback David Ash is having a great year and the ‘Horns get decent balance from the running game.

On the other side, this really isn’t a vintage TCU team. The Horned Frogs defense has been suspect, and while they were making headway in the passing game, quarterback Casey Pachall was suspended for the year a few weeks ago. Freshman Trevone Boykin hasn’t been able to carry the offense the way they require this year.

Texas is a seven-point favorite and if I were really a betting man, as opposed to just all talk, I’d see if could shop and get a line somewhere at six and a half. But if push came to shove I’d pick the ‘Horns and lay the wood on their homefield.