THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF THANKSGIVING FOOTBALL:
Thanksgiving games are a tradition of sorts, and tradition is fast losing its place in American sport. The tradition, however, was biggest on the local level, with high school games (colleges were on their short holiday break) between traditional rivals. Nowadays, where even schools in the frozen north play on Friday nights rather than Saturday afternoons when the ground has thawed (this is partly to avoid college games on Saturday TV as much as the influence of Saturday Night Lights—no scheduling changes were ever going to make Tyra show up at my high school games) local rivalries are often rescheduled for mid-season, to create a second big gate, and rivalries in general are going the way of college conferences (anyone remember Texas-Arkansas, Penn State-Pitt, Kansas-Missouri, Boston College-Holy Cross anymore?). Anyway, high school games were traditionally scheduled on Thanksgiving morning, then everyone went home and tried to combine stuffing themselves with turkey (stuffing isn't called stuffing for no reason) with sneaking looks at the Packers and Lions (or occasionally the Bears) who were nobly postponing their own family dinners for our TV watching pleasure. Now, of course, you can watch the NFL on any old Thursday night. But it's still great to have a game to give you an excuse to sneak away from washing the dishes, or nodding in silent agreement with the mother-in-law.
But three games is overkill at a level beyond shrimp cocktails, turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, turnips, carrots, beans, bread, gravy, wine, pumpkin pie, cherry pie, apple pie, ice cream, coffee, chocolates, and brandy. Thanksgiving was made for Rex Ryan to be home with his family, not freezing his brass ones off in the middle of the November night in Foxboro. I dislike the triple-header for three reasons. First, one game is enough. Two, perhaps. I'd prefer it if the teams were selected traditionally: Detroit and the Packers for the early game (you could even add the Bears into a three-team rotation) and maybe Dallas (the new tradition) against someone (Redskins? Saints?) in a night game, and do the same every year. But give the families celebrating Thanksgiving a break. Give the players a break. And if you have to schedule a triple-header, don't make two teams on the East Coast waste their Thanksgiving Days while their families celebrate, and then freeze at night when you have a whole west coast where it's still afternoon, and warmer.
THANKSGIVING DAY TRIPLE HEADER (all picks made Wednesday)
Houston (9-1) at Detroit (4-6): The Texans are coming off a ridiculous performance against the Jags, and have a number of key players (Johnathan Joseph most notably) nursing injuries on the short week on the road. The Lions, however, seem to be revealing more of their weaknesses all the time: Matt Stafford's throwing has been under question; and it has always been the strength of his arm that helped make up for bad judgement at times. They found Calvin Johnson more, and Houston's once solid pass D turned to Thanksgiving gravy when faced with Chad Henne, Cecil Shorts, and Justin Blackmon. Having said that, Detroit's D is all sound and fury, signifying very little, and their O line is shaky, though Riley Reiff may actually turn out to be an improvement over Jeff Backus, who might be better suited to move inside at this stage of his career. I think the Houston pass rush will step up, their pass D will at least do better, and the Lions will make a crucial mistake or two on their way home for turkey dinner. Pick: Texans
Washington (4-6) at Dallas (5-5): Despite the win squeaked out over the offensively challenged Browns, watching Jason Garrett and Tony Romo making a mash of the end game, and the overall indiscipline of the Cowboys (at one point their D had trouble getting 11 players on the field at the goal line) makes one wonder. The Skins are coming off a fine performance by Robert Griffin, but they had the advantage of playing an Eagles team starting Nick Foles for the first time. Griffin poses a unique threat for the Cowboys, especially when they're running him out of so many looks—Rob Ryan's basic theory is to keep coming at you and catch you regardless of which you show him. Griffin is kind of what Tony Romo dreams of being, but Romo's got better weapons, and if the Cowboys can actually run the ball just a bit, they may be able to build a lead and maybe avoid the fourth quarter trauma against the time clock. Pick: Cowboys
New England (7-3) at Newark Airport Jest (4-6): The Gronkless Pats take on the Tebow Time Jest Circus, with Ringmaster Rex orchestrating by doing weird stuff like saying all the right things about Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and co. Makes a change, doesn't it? The Pats have tight end alternatives to Gronk, but none who can deliver the total package the way he does, and they may miss rookie DE Chandler Jones almost as much. The Jets looked vulnerable against the Rams until they discovered their run game working, and once that was, Matt Sanchez became the 'game manager' they need (and frankly, with the current set of receivers, even the Pats' secondary will be hard pressed to give up big plays through the air). What people don't realise is that the Pats are hardly more a big-play offensive team than the Jets, so this one boils down to who makes more mistakes. Ladies and gentlemen, please turn your attention to the center ring, where ringmaster Rex will introduce the world's greatest wildcat tamer and direct snap passer: Tim Tebow. Pick: Pats
FRIDAY MORNING CARVERY:
And I don't mean the Ryan brothers, whose teams were carved up. It's funny how the same sort of issues of underperformance and indiscipline plague both teams. This is the morning I miss not spending Thanksgiving in America with my family, and not at the No.1 Sports Bar, where I hosted a mini-Bash around the tripleheader, and didn't get to eat a fresh-roasted turkey, drink pinot noir, and relax with my brother's pumpkin pie. The price we ex-pats pay. Plus I had to get up in the morning to write this! However the Jest, and Jim Schwartz, gave me all the turkeys I needed. Watching Schwartz celebrate Shayne Graham's first overtime miss convinced me Houston would eventually win—thanks to Schwartz's ill-timed challenge flag (a rule that will be changed at first opportunity). If the NFL is serious about accuracy, they might consider automatically reviewing EVERY call in a Walt Coleman reffed game! The Texans desperately need a number two receiver, but on the positive side the winner in the Johnson & Johnson matchup was us. Washington can do some things very well, and Alfred Morris is the latest of the anonymous runners who will gain 1,000 yards in a Shanaseason, but Dallas' game was a showcase of the Cowboys' woes. Romo puts a beauty on Dez Bryant's hands in the end zone and Bryant can't hang on (admittedly, a great defensive play), then Romo misfires an easy dump over the middle. Robert Griffin actually does look more poised back there. Oh, and the Cowboys can't run.
And the Jest? After watching Joe McKnight hit Julian Edleman in stride, despite being hit, I was surprised they didn't use him in the Tebow wildcat role. And I note that just a few days after Peter King talked about ATM turnovers, Mark Sanchez coughed the ball up after colliding with former Scottish Claymore Brandon Moore's backside. Not the hardest hit he'll ever take. Interesting too that all three road teams won on Thanksgiving Day: never underestimate the anger of players forced to spend the holiday away from home!
Minnesota (6-4) at Chicago (7-3): Mike Tice Bowl! The Vikes are rested and ready after their bye week, while the Bears are damaged and destroyed after Jason Campbell was thrown on the pyre of human sacrifice to the god Tice. An interesting report said Tice doesn't install protections in pre-season, but as they go along. With a unit as skilled as the Bears, that makes sense. Watching Chilo Raschal trying to bend over to pick up a fumble in the end zone was even funnier than watching Raschal pass said pick up out of the end zone. He's now about level on passer rating with Blaine Gabbert, if he decided to retire, at least temporarily, from the game. Will Jay play? Will he fake concussion symptoms to avoid it? Is Josh McCown the answer? Is any McCown? If so, what is the question, and is this really reality? Maybe people will have a better understanding now of just the sort of limitations Cutler faces behind that offensive line. You can bet Jared Allen understands. Pick: Bears
Oakland (3-7) at Cincinnati (5-5): Carson Palmer Bowl! Fans suffering from severe Bengalitis, like the famed philosopher Juicy Dr. Lucy, may find themselves conflicted when they see he who would not obey Mike Brown return in silver and black to face the tabby stripes. They needn't worry over much. The ginger lefty was sharp last week, and Green Ellis and Peerman operated like a new law firm of their own. Pick: Bengals
Pittsburgh (6-4) at Cleveland (2-8): Last week, in the context of the Bills-Dolphins, I said 'a punt return, a kickoff return and a lot of bumbling isn't entertainment.' Substitute one run by Byron Leftwich for the kickoff return and you've got the Steelers-Bills slugfest, which left Byron Leftwich with a rib injured possibly while stumbling into the end zone for the Steelers' only TD. The injury rib certainly explained why Leftwich's passes were off so much, as anyone who's ever lived with a broken rib will know. Charlie Batch now gets the start, with ex-Pat Brian Hoyer now queued up in the wings. The Steelers also resigned Plaxico Burress, who, like Mike Tyson, has never been the same since his year in prison. Or two years, if you count the year he played for the Jest. Pick: Steelers
Buffalo (4-6) at Indianapolis (6-4): Our first matchup of teams with palindromic records, and of teams that are, in modern PC speak, defensively challenged. So expect a score-fest, perhaps spotted with occasional big returns from the Bills. In a passers' battle, I'd give the advantage to Andrew Luck, and at home that means, pick: Colts
Tennessee (4-6) at Jacksonville (1-9): Gus Frerotte was a journeyman QB who would always perform well coming off the bench, but have a lot of trouble when he actually started the game. The pressure of expectation perhaps? Chad Henne is now presented with an opportunity to shed the same label. Henne threw for 354 yards and 4 scores, with no picks, which is like Bizzaro Blaine. Meanwhile, Chris Johnson seems to have been forgotten, despite occasional bursts of the old pre-CJ2.0YPA model. Pick: Jags
Denver (7-3) at Kansas City (1-9): Brady Quinn Bowl! Will Romeo perform a coaching masterstroke by finally starting Quinn against his former club? Does it matter? The Broncos have lost Willis McGahee for the season, which actually is serious. It's too bad the trading deadline is past, since the Chiefs don't seem to have any need for Jamaal Charles. Pick: Broncos
Seattle (6-4) at Miami (4-6): Our second palindromic match-up. Last week's Miami-Buffalo matchup became the first game in NFL history where the time of possession by the two teams totalled less than 60 minutes. Put it this way: Matt Schaub threw for more yards (527) than the combined total offense in this pre-Thanksgiving turkey (465). Miami don't have a deep threat, and when their run game stalls they can't play dink and dunk well enough. Seattle are notoriously bad on the road, but play good D, have excellent pass rushing, can run the ball, and have deep threats for Russell Wilson to hit. The Dolphins are 2-2 at home, Seattle is rested after the bye week, but they're also 1-4 on the road (the win over Carolina, the losses to Ariz/StL/SF/and Detroit). The Dolphins two weeks ago seemed to fit in the Ariz/StL category more than anything else. Even so, pick: Seahawks
Atlanta (9-1) at Tampa Bay (6-4): Thanksgiving is the time of year when NFL teams start showing their true colours, as in, are the Falcons becoming questionable on the road again? On Sunday Night Football I mentioned that Matt Ryan became the first QB to throw five picks in a game and win since Bart Starr in 1967; Starr didn't do it too often or he wouldn't be in the Hall of Fame and the Super Bowl trophy wouldn't be named after his coach. The Bucs needed OT to beat Carolina on the road, but Doug Martin is elevating himself into the elite category (*I grin insanely anticipating the flood of tweets this Sunday*) and Josh Freeman is discovering what having a big downfield target like Vincent Jackson means. Although the Falcons did just squeeze past the Crads, they outgained them by almost double: 354-178. So maybe last week was just an aberration. Maybe the Falcons have turned into road warriors? Pick: Falcons
Baltimore (8-2) at San Diego (4-6): Antwan Barnes Bowl! The Ravens' D played well enough to hold Byron Leftwich, his broken rib, and the Steelers to 10 points, even though Terrell Suggs was clearly hobbled by his Achilles injury, and Haloti Ngata's knee and shoulder issues mean he's well less than 100 per cent, so this should be interesting, because the Chargers' have issues everywhere on offense, though Danario Alexander passed his audition to become Vince Jackson lite. It's frustrating to watch Joe Flacco turn into Mark Sanchez on the road, especially if Barnes decides he's ready to wreak pass-rush revenge on the Ravens. Pick: Chargers
St Louis (3-6-1) at Arizona (4-6): The Rams started out strong against the Jest and then turnovered their way into a loss. An inability to stop the run didn't help much either. The Crads gave Ryan Lindley his NFL debut, and everything in his college scouting report was proved true quickly: strong arm, accuracy and decision-making issues. He'll get the start Sunday. The Rams haven't won on the road, though their tie in San Francisco was a moral win. What would a moral win for Ryan Lindley be? Pick: Rams
San Francisco (7-2-1) at New Orleans (5-5): Jonathan Goodwin/Brian DeLa Puente Bowl! It's as if they traded centers. Here's where that hot streak gets tested, by a balanced Niners team coming off a big win in the Concussed Quarterback Derby against the Bears. It was engineered by Colin Kaepernick, who showed more downfield accuracy than we'd seen so far, and of course has more running ability than Alex Smith as well. Jim Harbaugh said giving CK the start had nothing to do with protecting Smith from concussion syndrome, which must've made Smith feel wanted. No such worries for Drew Brees, who had his own period of feeling unwanted back in the spring. Watching the way the Niners' O line rag-dolled the Bears' D, he knows he needs to put lots of points on the board and force the Niners to play catch-up. Is ‘catchup’ Kaepernick's middle name? Pick: Niners
SUNDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL LIVE ON CHANNEL FOUR:
Green Bay (7-3) at New Jersey Giants (6-4): The Packers tried to sign Plaxico Burress, but Plax didn't really want to start at right tackle against another of his old clubs, the Giants. The Giants under Tom Coughlin have a pattern, but it's not always losing in November. It's more we sneak and struggle into the playoffs, or not, and if we do we win the Super Bowl, or not. Eli's right arm is either an overcooked strand of linguine or it isn't, but at least none of his tight ends are complaining that he's ignoring them, the way Jermichael Finley is. Either Aaron Rodgers finds Finley for two TDs and the Pack pick up a revenge win on the road, or they don't. I'm kind of thinking they don't. Pick: Giants
MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL LIVE ON BBC RED BUTTON:
Carolina (2-8) at Philadelphia (3-7): This is like tuning in for the America's Cup and getting a documentary about the sinking of the Titanic instead. If you thought the Dolphins-Bills was a stinker...in a world where the Eagles looked like they actually wanted to block or tackle or win, I'd pick them. But Cam Newton seems to have studied at the Mike Vick School of Retrograde Scrambling. Playing at home means that instead of raucous booing from the opposition's fans when they have the ball, they will hear insanely vicious booing from their own fans when they have the ball. Oh, did I mention Shady McCoy is out? This is one of those games nobody wins, except the bookies, and they aren't posting a line on it, so you know it's a turkey. 'Forget it, Jake, it's Thanksgiving.' Pick: Panthers
LAST WEEK: 12-2 SEASON: 103-57-1