DISCLAIMER: The Steelers vs. Ravens game has been rescheduled for Sunday due to positive COVID-19 test from the Ravens' staff.
By: Casey Dobson
We are getting into the most wonderful time of year for football fans (Did you see that Saturday double header schedule for December?) and it all starts with Thanksgiving Thursday’s Triple Header (Double header now). While it may feature an NFC "Least" matchup, there are plenty of playoff implications at stake for the six teams taking the field throughout the day. Stick with us for the breakdown on both sides of the ball for each team, and most importantly, what the final score lines will look like.
Houston Texans at Detroit Lions
Line: Houston -2.5
Houston Key Injuries: WR Randall Cobb (OUT), RB David Johnson (OUT), WR Kenny Stills (Questionable), LT Laremy Tunsil (Questionable), CB Lonnie Johnson Jr (Questionable), DT Brandon Dunn (Questionable)
Detroit Key Injuries: QB Matthew Stafford (Questionable), RB D’Andre Swift (Questionable), WR Kenny Golladay (Questionable), WR Danny Amendola (Questionable), CB Jeff Okudah (Questionable)
Thanksgiving’s first game may not look like anything special, and that’s probably because it isn’t. But, that doesn’t mean there aren’t some interesting storylines heading into kickoff. In case you hadn’t heard, the Lions are coming off of being shutout by the Panthers on Sunday, and the Texans made easy work of the Patriots, so these are two teams heading in opposite directions despite the fact that Detroit has a better record than Houston. Look for that to change after Turkey Day.
Lions’ quarterback Matthew Stafford is dealing with a thumb injury that has him far from perfect form, something that was reflected in his Sunday stat line. The veteran QB completed just 18 of his 33 pass attempts for 178 yards and no touchdowns. With reliable weapons like Golladay and Amendola also slated as questionable, it’s looking more and more like the Lions will be forced to rely on their run game to produce the bulk of their offence.
At the outset, there may be cause for concern should the Lions be forced to turn to their running game with the uncertainty surrounding rookie running back D’Andre Swift. But the team has been relying more so on veteran back Adrian Peterson to get their ground game going. Peterson is the team’s leading rusher, with 104 attempts for 389 yards. No, these numbers are nothing to write home about, but Lions fans can take comfort in the fact that the potential absence of Swift won’t overly disrupt the workflow of the offence.
As for the other sideline, the Houston offence has seemingly revived itself since the departure of human dumpster fire Bill O’Brien. Even while O’Brien was there, Deshaun Watson was looking like he was on track to play the best football of his career, and he has certainly maintained that form since Romeo Crennel took over. While it’s not hard to dream of the ways Watson could be lighting up the league if he still had Hopkins to throw to, Will Fuller and Brandin Cooks have developed such good chemistry with their quarterback that I don’t think Watson is losing sleep over who no longer wears Texans colours.
Houston as a whole are better than their record would indicate, but particularly their offence. They opened the season against three of the league’s strongest defences, in Kansas City, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh and haven’t played many pushovers (with the exception of Jacksonville) since. Don’t be surprised if they build off of the momentum from their win over the Patriots and truly have a coming out party on Thursday afternoon.
The Detroit defence is shockingly mediocre given that the team is run by Matt Patricia, the disciple of defensive mastermind Bill Belichick. The biggest red flag heading into a face off with Watson is the lack of consistency on the pass rush. Time and time again, opposing quarterbacks have had time to eat a sandwich and then throw a dime into the equally inconsistent Detroit secondary, a fact that illustrates itself through the Lions’ being the 25th ranked pass defence in the league.
As for Houston’s biggest defensive weakness, that falls squarely on their ability to stop the run. They’re allowing an average of 5.1 yards per attempt, which could prove fatal as they play a team who will most likely be running the ball a lot. The Texans are dead last in the NFL for run defence, having allowed 1593 yards on the ground over 10 games.
Things start to turn around for the Houston defence once things move into the red zone, however. Over the course of the season, opposing offences have only found pay dirt on 60 per cent of their red zone attempts. Contrast that to the Lions’ abysmal red zone offence (they only find the end zone 43 per cent of the time) and it looks as though their weaknesses might be cancelled out.
The other area of interest will be at the line of scrimmage, where the up and coming Texans’ defensive line will be looking to run through an unreliable Lions’ offensive line. Houston recorded two sacks and eight hits on Cam Newton on Sunday, whereas Stafford was sacked five times against Carolina.
The Bottom Line
In the first action of Thanksgiving Football Thursday, you can feel comfortable taking Houston to cover the spread. There are simply too many question marks surrounding every stage of the Detroit defence to reasonably say that they can stop Watson and his weapons. Even with the Texans’ woes in stopping the run, their stoutness in the red zone will continue as they face a Lions offence that doesn’t doesn’t look overly threatening through the air or on the ground, for reasons of injury or age.
Final Score Prediction: Houston Texans 33 - Detroit Lions 20
Washington Football Team at Dallas Cowboys
Line: Dallas -2.5
Washington Key Injuries: S Deshazor Everett (Questionable), WR Terry McLaurin (Questionable)
Dallas Key Injuries: K Greg Zuerlein (Questionable)
You mean to tell me you didn’t jump out of your seat with excitement at the prospect of getting to watch an NFC East battle on Thanksgiving? Okay, yeah me neither, but football is football right? And this game does have shockingly large playoff implications as whoever wins will move into first place, at least for a few days. On top of that, both teams are coming off of surprising wins, so this game has all the makings of as much of a classic as can come from the worst division in sports history.
Dallas’ offence looked as coherent as it has since Prescott went down on Sunday against the Vikings. It was the first time since losing their star pivot that they scored over 20 points and Ezekiel Elliott broke 100 rushing yards for the first time all season. It’s hard to imagine that this offence slows down on Thursday, especially when you add the extra motivation of trying to avenge their embarrassing 25-3 loss back in week seven, the same game in which Dalton was sidelined after a nasty hit.
Provided that Dalton can stay on the field this week, he gives the Washington defence a lot to think about. He looked surprisingly good given he was coming off of both injury and a COVID-19 diagnosis. This can be attributed to his offensive line finally being able to provide their quarterback with time to make plays, and Dalton connected with both favourite and new targets. Amari Cooper and CeeDee Lamb both had standout performances against Minnesota, as did tight end Dalton Schultz, who caught the game winning touchdown.
Washington also looks to be coming alive on the offensive side of the ball, with Alex Smith as their starter under center. The positive influence Smith has had on the Football Team cannot be understated; his calming presence has grounded the young roster, who had made a habit of futile mistakes in the opening weeks. And since returning from his gruesome injury, it isn’t as if much can phase him.
When it comes to the ground game, Washington has been turning to rookie back, Antonio Gibson. Gibson racked up a season high 128 yards last time these two teams faced off, and has found the end zone five times in his last four games. The team has also been scoring over 23 points per game over the same span. All in all, it’s a balanced offence that runs through both a grizzled veteran and an up and coming rookie
When it comes to the otherside of the ball for the Cowboys, they better be hoping that their offence can once again carry the load because they have simply not been able to get it done this season. From the run to the pass, Dallas has struggled to find success when it comes to stopping opponents on a consistent basis. When it comes to stopping the run, they rank 31st, allowing an average of 4.9 yards per carry, something that is sure to not be lost on Washington coaches who know the damage their running backs can do.
In the air, the Cowboys may be ranked higher (14th), but you wouldn’t know that from watching them play. At first glance, it seems as though the Cowboys would be better off putting cones in their secondary because at least at that point opponents might trip over them. They’ve given up 24 passing touchdowns, while only coming up with three interceptions, allowing opposing passers to earn an average passer rating of 106.6.
The softness of the Dallas defence is in stark contrast to the hard-nosed style of Washington. You don’t have to look any further than the hit Chase Young laid on Joe Burrow on Sunday to understand the way this team is trying to play football. Washington is the best passing defence in the league, and have racked up 32 sacks this season, which is good for third. When they matched up in week seven, Washington got to the Cowboys’ QB six times. Since then, Dallas has moved Zack Martin over to tackle from guard to plug the hole, and so far it has worked as they allowed a single sack against Minnesota. But the Vikings have nowhere near the tenacity as this Washington line.
Look for Dallas to turn to their run game, now that they’ve seen Elliott produce at the level they’re paying him for, because when it comes to the ground game, Washington’s ability to pull out a stop drops significantly. Where they’re first in pass defence, the Football Team is 18th in run defence, and will be kept honest by a refreshed Elliott.
The Bottom Line
Where Dallas has an awful secondary, it remains to be seen if Washington has the ability to play the deep ball well enough to expose that. I’m going to go ahead and say that that becomes the deciding factor in this game, especially given that Washington’s top wideout, Terry McLaurin is listed as questionable. This will be a gritty, hard fought game, and at the final whistle Dallas will have come away with the win, but they will not cover the spread.
Final Score Prediction: Dallas Cowboys 21 - Washington Football Team 20
Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers
Line: Pittsburgh -3
Baltimore Key Injuries: RB J.K. Dobbins (OUT), RB Mark Ingram (OUT), TE Mark Andrews (Questionable), DE Derek Wolfe (Questionable), DE Calais Campbell (Questionable), LB Matthew Judon (Questionable)
Pittsburgh Key Injuries: QB Ben Roethlisberger (Questionable), WR JuJu Smith-Schuster (Questionable), RB Jaylen Samuels (Questionable), DE Cameron Heyward (Questionable), CB Joe Haden (Questionable)
The main course of Thanksgiving football promises to be nothing short of a blood bath. Two teams that hate each other, who are heading in polar opposite directions, yet both have something to play for. Yes, it may be strange to say that a 10-0 team has something to play for, but the Steelers only have a one game lead on Kansas City for the AFC’s only bye. And as we’ve seen in playoffs past, anything can happen come January so you know Pittsburgh wants to hold on to sole possession of first for as long as possible. The Ravens on the other hand are playing to just stay relevant in the playoff picture. Having lost three of their last four, Baltimore are currently hanging on to a wild card spot, but barely.
This time last season, we were asking ourselves who would be able to stop Lamar Jackson and Baltimore’s video game offence. But at this point, the question is looking more like who can’t? Ever since Tennessee ousted them from the 2019 playoffs, teams have figured out how to put a lid on Jackson’s production, both on the ground and in the air. As of this point, he’s only thrown for 250 yards once this season, and everybody knows that this team relies heavily on the run, both from Jackson and their backs. This suddenly makes game planning for the once explosive offence a relatively simple task.
Not only does their reliance on the run make the Ravens predictable, it also makes their lives exponentially more difficult when they fall behind. There’s no doubt that the lack of pass catching talent plays into this, but even that doesn’t explain how 2019’s number one total offence is now sitting at 24th. And it’s not as if things are about to get easier; as tight end Nick Boyle is on IR and their other tight end Mark Andrews is questionable.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have the Pittsburgh Steelers, who are making the passing game look like practice week in and week out. It really is an embarrassment of riches right now in the Steelers receiving corps, with the likes of Smith-Schuster, Washington, Johnson, and offensive rookie of the year candidate Chase Claypool, it’s no wonder nobody has been able to stop these guys. Yet even at that, Pittsburgh haven’t rolled over every opponent, but they have been able to make the key plays at the key times, no game being a better example than their week eight meeting with Baltimore, which they won 28-24.
While the offences may be miles apart at the minute, these defences are both within the top 10 total defences in the league. It’s not hard to argue with the fact that without their defence, the Ravens would be a lot further away from a playoff spot than they are. Baltimore boasts the third highest scoring defence in the league and has only allowed an average of 19.5 points per game, which is third behind the Steelers and the Rams.
The biggest concern with the Ravens defence is their ability to put together a full 60 minutes of football. When they have managed to get themselves a lead, they’ve struggled to keep it, case in point that week eight game against these Steelers. The loss of Campbell undoubtedly hurts them up front in their efforts to try and rattle the Pittsburgh passing game, but they have enough talent throughout their lineup to at least keep this game close, but only if they can commit to a full game.
Though the Steelers offence is great, their defence is still their biggest strength. When you’re holding opponents to an average of 17.4 points a game, there really isn’t much to criticize. The Balck and Gold are the fourth overall defence in the league, and on top of being first in PPG, they’re top seven in both rushing and passing yards per game. On top of it all, they’re a league best +12 when it comes to turnovers. All of this combines for a nightmare scenario for a Baltimore offence that has looked lost at the best of times over the last four games.
The Bottom Line
Don’t let the early small margin fool you, this game has the potential to get ugly fast. Not only is Pittsburgh a better squad through all phases of the game, but the Ravens just look like eleven individuals when they take the field. Their dropoff from last season is looking like it’s gotten to their heads, and a divisional matchup against an undefeated team while you’re fighting for your playoff life is just about the worst case scenario for a franchise that doesn’t look like they have anything together. The Steelers will easily cover this spread and move to 11-0
Final Score Prediction: Pittsburgh Steelers 38 - Baltimore Ravens 28
It’s an appetizing slate of games for American Turkey Day that is sure to deliver highlights, bloopers, and everything in between. Which game are you most excited for?