Thanksgiving this time features five teams with positive records and the only one with negative records and little chance of a playoff is the Lions with a respectable 4-6 and an ongoing winning streak. So nothing stands in the way of an evening full of playoff implications.
NFL Previews: Thanksgiving Night
Buffalo Bills (7-3) vs. Detroit Lions (4-6) (Thu, 6:30 p.m. Live on DAZN)
- The Bills are back in Detroit after a few days, but this time as an away team. After an emotionally important win against the Browns, a slight downward spiral that could cost QB Josh Allen the MVP was stopped.
- The Lions are on a three-game winning streak and can play without pressure against the Bills. They’re almost 10 points underdog at the bookies and no one expects them to be able to match a Super Bowl contender.
- The matchup the Lions need to focus on most when looking for the upset is their offensive line versus Bill’s defensive line. The Lions have a big and powerful line that can dominate run blocking and has unexpectedly helped running back Jamaal Williams to his current NFL all-time high of 12 rushing touchdowns. Their pass protection, on the other hand, is below average and the failures of right guard Evan Brown and left guard Jonah Jackson will be more noticeable here than in the running game. At the same time, the Bills’ strengths are in the pass rush, while the run defense has repeatedly caused concerns in recent weeks – such as against the Packers and the Vikings. The Bills defense’s injury absentees are concentrated in the front 7 – linebacker Tremaine Edmunds and edge Greg Rousseau won’t play, edge AJ Epenesa hasn’t practiced all week and probably won’t play. At the same time, the secondary is getting healthier — safety Jordan Poyer returned last week, rookie cornerback Kaiir Elam is likely to play, star cornerback Tre’Davious White is a game-time decision exactly a year after suffering his ACL injury on Thanksgiving. From the Lions perspective, all of this also speaks for looking for the duel more in the trenches. So Detroit’s game plan should be to keep up with the running game as long as possible and to put as little emphasis on QB Jared Goff as possible. However, if the Bills – as they did against the Browns last week – turn off such a plan A, head coach Dan Dampbell will need an alternative approach that he has not been able to show so far.
- The easiest way for the Bills to take out the Lions’ running game is to score quickly themselves on offense. Lions cornerback Jeff Okudah sits out with a concussion after a good run of good games. Expected replacements will be a mix of Jerry Jacobs, Mike Hughes and Amani Oruwariye, who has little hope of the league’s top three pass offense. Should QB Josh Allen quickly seek a matchup to wide receiver Stefon Diggs here, it will be difficult for the Lions to respond. However, since the Lions are also struggling with line failures (Josh Paschal and Charles Harris will be absent), the Bills could embark on a run-heavy duel with a sense of security. Intentionally light boxes on the part of the Lions could help here. So the game could be slower and tighter than the bookmakers suspected.
New York Giants (7-3) vs. Dallas Cowboys (7-3) (Thu, 10:30 p.m.)
- The Giants are one of the surprises of the season, deep in the race for the division and the NFC playoffs, despite a collection of wide receivers that no one would say thank you for. Additionally, the squad will be weakened by the absence of Wan’Dale Robinson, one of the team’s top receivers, from the ACL, and the continued absence of tight end Daniel Bellinger.
- Dallas was able to clearly position itself as a contender for the NFC crown in the thrashing victory against the Vikings and is now looking for the preliminary decision in the division order. Their pass rush continues to be the best in the league and the Giants offensive line is grappling with a spate of injuries beyond star left tackle Andrew Thomas: Guard Shane Lemieux, center Jon Feliciano and right tackle Evan Neal will all three miss the start. Dallas defensive coordinator Dan Quinn will have little trouble moving his pass rush away from Thomas should the Giants want to fold.
- Giants head coach Brian Daboll could – not unlike the Lions – pursue a game plan that focuses on running back Saquon Barkley. Especially the defensive interior of the cowboys is nothing intoxicating against the run. And if they pass, Daboll will proceed differently than in week 3: Since Dallas made life difficult for quarterback Daniel Jones at the time, Daboll has had the number of true pass sets – i.e. dropbacks without play action, screens or other help against the pass rush – reduced for Jones.
- Dallas, like the Bills, can turn the run around with their own offense scoring quickly: The Giants don’t have their best cornerback in Adoree Jackson in the lineup, and safety Xavier McKinney’s tackle is also missed badly in the secondary. Dak Prescott has been playing at the top 10 level since his return and can find a good matchup against the Giants defense on almost every play with wide receiver CeeDee Lamb.
- The Giants’ hope could be that Dallas leans on running back Tony Pollard – and plays right into the defense strength along the interior line. Dexter Lawrence and Leonard Williams will be waiting there gratefully. So the exciting question will be whether defensive coordinator Wink Martindale will invite the Cowboys to run with light boxes.
New England Patriots (6-4) vs. Minnesota Vikings (8-2) (Fri., 2:20 p.m.)
- The Patriots are back in the middle of the AFC playoff race after last week’s game-winning punt return against the Jets, while the Vikings remain in contention for their playoff spot despite the smack against Dallas.
- The Patriots didn’t look great against the good Jets defense and have to wonder where the passing game around quarterback Mac Jones can develop. The Vikings pass rush around Za’Darius Smith is very good, and his versatility allows the Vikings to take advantage of right tackle Isaiah Wynn’s failure. But the Vikings running defense is also one of the best in the league. Against cornerback Patrick Peterson, however, the Vikings secondary are struggling with absentees from Andrew Booth and Akayleb Evans – in addition to Cameron Dantzler’s injured reserve. So if the Patriots want to attack this weakness, short passing or heavy play action could work.
- The Vikings have an even bigger failure on the offensive line: left tackle Christian Darrisaw is one of the best pass protectors in the league but is out with a concussion. Quarterback Kirk Cousins has finally discovered throwing deeper on the Vikings offense — his rate of throws 20 yards or deeper has doubled in the last three weeks, and some of those are 50-50 balls to star wide receiver Justin Jefferson, the catches everything that comes flying in its direction. What’s interesting is that this development came against three top 10 pass rush teams (Washington, Buffalo and Dallas), where you would actually expect shorter routes. The Patriots are just as good a pass rush (second in pressure rate behind Dallas), so the question will be whether Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell will continue to throw Cousins deep, or whether Darrisaw’s absence will turn the tide here.
- Vikings head coach Kevin O’Connell was drafted in 2008 by Bill Belichick and the Patriots as a quarterback and third-round draft. After just a year, his Patriots career ended and O’Connell had no real foothold as a player. Facing his old coach on an equal footing will probably be an emotional moment for him. “You can’t even put into words the respect I have for him as a person, as a coach, as a leader, as a league personality and ultimately as a challenge.” O’Connell said on Tuesday.