Last year, I wrote about the best Thanksgiving Day Performances. Today, we get three games with serious playoff implications.
Green Bay (5-5-1) at Detroit (6-5)Come to see what Ndamukong Suh does this Thanksgiving, stay for a pivotal NFC North matchup. Matt Flynn gets the start in a must-win game for the Packers. Even if Aaron Rodgers returns next week and the Packers run the table, the Packers may still be left out in the cold with a loss today to the Lions. Beating the Packers would get the Lions to 7 wins, and Detroit will be favored in home games against the Ravens and Giants and in Minnesota in week 17. The good news for Green Bay? The last time Flynn started a game for Green Bay, it was against the Lions, and it went very well.
The game is nearly as important for the Lions. With a loss, Detroit would no longer control its own destiny for the NFC North title. Assuming the Bears beat the Vikings this weekend, the Lions would essentially be one-half game back of both Green Bay and Chicago (the Bears would be 7-5 but Detroit has the tiebreaker). It’s not that hard to make up a half game in four weeks, but the Bears and Packers play in week 17. That means the winner of that game must lose one other game and Detroit would need to run the table in order to win the NFC North. Of course, the Lions could also get in as a 9-7 NFC North champ; the most likely path there is the Packers losing to the Bears and Cowboys, while Chicago loses in Philadelphia and to either the Cowboys at home or the Browns on the road. A loss today would be deadly for Green Bay, while a Detroit loss would put the Lions as the third-most likely team to win the division.
Worth keeping in mind: Carolina and New Orleans will make the playoffs, and the winner of Arizona-San Francisco in week 17 will only need to split its other two games to finish with 10 wins. That means all three NFC North teams are likely playing without a net.
Oakland (4-7) at Dallas (6-5)
Even the AFC has limits on who can receive a playoff berth. The loss against Tennessee effectively eliminated Oakland from playoff contention, but the Eagles and Cowboys are in a dead-even heat for the NFC East crown. All Dallas needs to do is stay within one game of Philadelphia heading into their week 17 showdown in Dallas. A loss to Oakland would be devastating for the Cowboys chances, as the Eagles could enter the final game of the season at 10-5 (the Eagles next four games: home against Arizona, home against Detroit, at Minnesota, home against Chicago). The Cowboys and Eagles have mostly fared evenly this year, with Dallas picking up a game by beating the Eagles and Philadelphia picking up a game by virtue of the schedule (seeing Tampa Bay instead of Carolina from the NFC South).
A win over Oakland would give the Cowboys and Eagles identical results against the AFC West, but Philadelphia would still have a slight edge courtesy of having not lost to the Lions (yet) and Dallas having not beaten Green Bay (yet). Philadelphia definitely caught some breaks — the NFC South opponent, facing the Packers without Rodgers — although the Cowboys didn’t have to play any games with their third string quarterback, either.
But the schedule analysis is mostly a moot point: I suspect week 17 will be a winner-take-all matchup, which means we can see another Dallas week 17 game flexed in front of Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth. It will be the third time in three seasons — with three different opponents — that the Cowboys have play a de facto championship game on Sunday night for the NFC East crown.
As for today’s game? It certainly lacks some of the luster of prior Cowboys Thanksgiving games. Sure, Tony Romo and Dez Bryant always bring lots of potential, but a Matt McGloin offense does not go well with a side of tryptophan. But you can impress your friends with this bit of trivia: over the last four weeks, Oakland’s Rashad Jennings leads the NFL in yards from scrimmage.
Pittsburgh (5-6) at Baltimore (5-6)
We have a pair of quasi play-in games in the AFC this week; the Jets and Dolphins also square off, and when it comes to the AFC’s 6 seed, division tiebreakers are used first until only one team is left from each division. The Chargers host the Bengals and the Titans travel to Indianapolis this week, so there’s a good chance the winners of Pittsburgh/Baltimore and Miami/New York find themselves in only a two-team tie after week thirteen.
Earlier this week, I broke down each of Joe Flacco’s interceptions this season. Turnover were an issue for Pittsburgh early this year — the team did not force a single turnover during its 0-4 start — but the Steelers haves forced 14 turnovers over the last seven games (including seven interceptions). Just about every Steelers-Ravens game is 16-16 with 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter, so you can probably spend some time away from the TV if such a a sacrifice would be valued by those folks nearby.
While this is a game between two desperate teams, it’s clearly a more important one to Baltimore. The Steelers are the better team and have a slightly easier remaining schedule, so it would be easier for Pittsburgh to make up a game. If Baltimore loses, their season is essentially over. The Ravens would have been swept by Pittsburgh, which means the Ravens would need to run the table to finish 9-7 and hope Pittsburgh loses two of its final four. And, of course, Baltimore would still need to beat out the rest of the teams vying for that final spot. A Steelers loss would be bad, but Pittsburgh could make up one game in the final month of the year. All it would take for the Steelers to control their own destiny (with respect to Baltimore) would be a Ravens loss in Cincinnati in week 17 — a game that will very likely have meaning for the Bengals. Even absent that, Pittsburgh would win the tiebreaker over Baltimore due to record against common opponents, unless the Steelers drop another division game in the final month of the season.