NFL's Thanksgiving games the best in recent memory
By HUNTER KOSSODO
College Contributor Network
Thanksgiving is when the NFL season gets interesting. The weather gets worse, the games mean more, and we find out which teams that had legitimate playoff hopes have the fortitude to win those games and which teams will wilt under the pressure.
And what better way to bring upon these last five weeks of the regular season than this slate of Thanksgiving games on Thursday. They are, in order, the Bears at the Lions, the Eagles at the Cowboys and the Seahawks at the 49ers. It's the first time since the NFL started airing three games on the holiday in 2006 that every game is between division rivals. Not only that, but all three games have major playoff implications for all teams involved.
In most people's eyes, the Chicago Bears' season was over after they were bludgeoned by the Patriots in Week 8 to bring their record to 3-5. As disappointing as this team has been, they're actually the team with more momentum heading into the Turkey Day matchup with Detroit.
The Bears have won two in a row after getting shredded by the Packers to improve their record to 5-6. Those two wins were against mediocre teams at home, and they weren't particularly convincing wins either, but it still goes in the book as two wins. The defense, which gave up 106 combined points to the Patriots and Packers, held the Vikings and Buccaneers to a total of 26.
Chicago held the Bucs to just seven-for-17 on third down, stopped the run, and sacked Josh McCown five times while picking him off twice. Again, the opposition was bad, but the Bears are trending in the right direction. Chicago is on the fringes of the NFC playoff hopefuls, but it's still there.
The Lions meanwhile are trending in the complete opposite direction. Coming into Week 12 as the NFC North leaders, their airtight defense was exposed by New England through the air and on the ground, which isn't a good look for a team that relies on its defense more than any team in the league not named the Arizona Cardinals.
Detroit failed to score a touchdown in its last two games. I repeat, the Detroit Lions with Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate and Joique Bell did not reach the end zone once in their last two games. Those two games were on the road against Arizona and New England, but an offensive unit with that much talent should be scoring against anyone.
Chicago is catching Detroit at the exact right time, and if the Bears come away with a victory they will have, imagine this, confidence. They would be 6-6 and still third in the division, but right back into the thick of the Wild Card race and just one game back of the Lions. The Bears have the talent to play better than what the tape shows, but injuries to key defensive players and dissension in the ranks after the slow start have impeded this team's progress.
A win for Detroit would mean that they're back to the top of the division if Green Bay loses against the Patriots three days later. It would also be a big win for a team that desperately needs one to get back on track after their offense has gone radio silent and their defense just gave up a season-high 34 points.
The Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers smell blood in the waters of the NFC West. The Cardinals still have breathing room as leaders of the division, but they are without starting quarterback Carson Palmer for the rest of the season. The Cardinals almost suffered another disaster after interim starter Drew Stanton twisted his ankle, but he looks to be fine.
Seattle and San Francisco had slow starts to its seasons, but both teams are accomplished and know that November is when they have to play their best. The 49ers have won their last three games and the Seahawks four out of their last five, including last week against Arizona.
They know that this division is still very much up for grabs. Add in the fact that because of how competitive the NFC is this year it's unlikely one division will field three playoff teams and there's extra motivation for the Seahawks and 49ers to make sure they aren't the ones watching the playoffs from the living room.
These are two teams that hate each other. I know that Thanksgiving is a family holiday so parents will be watching this game with their kids, but please be ready to shield your children's eyes and ears. Both teams rely on their aggressive defenses to set the tone, so expect to see them try to one-up the other with big hits and plenty of trash talking.
The good news for San Francisco is that they get to play this game at home. It's especially good news for their offense, which has struggled to get anything going consistently all season. Colin Kaepernick hasn't thrown more than one touchdown pass since Week 6, and hasn't been able to get much from his reads if Anquan Boldin is covered. The 49ers could put a Vernon Davis jersey on a plank of wood for this game and get the same production.
Seattle also has its own set of issues on the offensive side of the ball. Doug Baldwin hasn't been cutting it as the team's top receiver, and when Marshawn Lynch isn't right, such was the case against the Cardinals, the offense grinds to a halt.
These two teams are eerily similar. Both rely on running the ball and playing punishing defense, and both have dual-threat quarterbacks who have similar passing statistics this season. This means that they know how to attack each other, and it should make for a great installment of football's newest best rivalry.
While the two aforementioned games are rife with their own storylines, neither of them are for first place in the division. The Philadelphia Eagles at the Dallas Cowboys is.
Mark Sanchez has gone 3-1 under center for the Eagles after Nick Foles went down with a broken collarbone. He's clearly a fan of the Chip Kelly offense, as he's thrown for over 300 yards in his last three games and the Eagles have scored over 40 points twice in the past four weeks, something they didn't do once with Foles.
Philly, like Arizona, has found a way to win without its lead quarterback. The Eagles' defense has been getting to the quarterback and forcing turnovers while their special teams has been amazing all season. LeSean McCoy, who hasn't played up to what's expected of him as arguably the best running back in the league, has regained his form. Against the Titans in Week 12, he rushed for 130 yards and a score on 21 carries.
But maybe the story of the season is the Dallas Cowboys. They are 8-3 and coming off a clutch win over the rival New York Giants in which Dallas showed again that it has the best offensive line in football and a superstar in Dez Bryant.
Of course you can't talk about the Cowboys without mentioning DeMarco Murray, who now has over 1,300 yards and is still on pace to become just the eighth running back to break 2,000 yards in a season. If the Eagles want to keep their top dog status in the NFC East, they are certainly going to have to earn it.
This is one of the best NFL Thanksgivings in recent memory, and I can't think of a better way to spend a day than eating my body weight in turkey and stuffing and laying comatose on the couch watching these great football games. While the rest of the NFL season may bring heartbreak for your favorite team, enjoy this Thursday.
Hunter Kossodo is a junior at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. He is a rabid supporter of Boston sports having lived there for most of his life. Follow him on Twitter: @HKossodo