NFL Thanksgiving Day 2018 Preview
Turkey Day means different things to different people, but to me, it means an over-indulgence in turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, dessert, and -- of course -- football.
Thursday will bring us three big matchups that have major playoff implications. To start things off, the NFC North leading Chicago Bears travel to the Detroit Lions for a divisional matchup. That will be followed by a contest that could decide the divisional title in the NFC East, where the 6-4 Washington Redskins travel to the 5-5 Dallas Cowboys. Finally, our nightcap finishes with a battle in the NFC South between the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints, which should leave no shortage of offensive fireworks.
So what should we expect from these three contests? Let's dig in and find out.
Chicago Bears vs. Detroit Lions
The division-leading Bears travel to Detroit, and they will look to maintain their lead in the NFC North but with the potential that quarterback Mitchell Trubisky sits out. He is considered doubtful and looks likely to rest after suffered an injury to his right shoulder on Sunday night.
This will be the second meeting between the two teams this season, as they met just two weeks ago in Chicago, with the Bears claiming a 34-22 home victory. According to our power rankings, the Bears are the 3rd-ranked team in the league, while the Lions sit a bit farther back at 28th.
If he somehow plays, the second-year quarterback leads one of the strongest offensive attacks in the NFL, ranking 11th per our metrics. Among signal-callers with 150 or more drop backs, Trubisky ranks a solid 11th in Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back (0.18). By comparison, the Lions' offensive leader, Matthew Stafford has been solid, ranking 15th in Passing NEP per drop back (0.13), but hasn't been as strong as Trubisky.
If Trubisky is ultimately ruled out, though, career backup Chase Daniel would start. Daniel hasn't thrown a regular season pass since 2016. For his career, he is 51 of 78 for a touchdown and a pick with 5.8 adjusted yards per attempt. In his only two career starts, while with Kansas City, he went for 7.88 and 17.9 FanDuel points while completing 36 of 57 attempts.
The two ground games are going in opposite directions, as Kerryon Johnson has been one of the most efficient runners in 2018. Among the 51 ball carriers with 75 or more rushes, Johnson ranks 13th in Rushing NEP per carry (0.07). His availability on the short week does seem to be in question, unfortunately, for this contest, which will likely lead to more work for LeGarrette Blount and Theo Riddick.
For the Bears, Jordan Howard hasn't been quite as strong; he ranks sixth-worst among the same group of runners (-0.11), and he has been slowly ceding work to Tarik Cohen. While Howard out-touched Cohen 18 to 10 last week, Cohen led Howard in touches against the Lions by a slim 13 to 12 margin.
Both offenses are also very different in terms of strategy -- the Lions rank ninth in pass-to-run ratio (1.71), while the Bears clock in 28th (1.16). Where they are similar, however, is in terms of situation-neutral pace -- the Bears rank 19th (31.35 seconds), whereas the Lions are even slower at 33.33 seconds (30th).
Using our adjusted per-play metrics, Chicago's defense shines brightly, ranking 5th, while we have the Lions' defense pegged as the worst in the NFL and 30th against the pass.
Washington Redskins vs. Dallas Cowboys
Washington (17th in our power rankings) and Dallas (19th) will face off in the second game, and this could go a long way in deciding the divisional crown.
The Redskins are searching for answers after Alex Smith suffered a brutal leg injury that will sideline him for the rest of 2018. Prior to the injury, Smith was not performing at his peak, ranking only 28th out of quarterbacks in Passing NEP per drop back (0.02). Colt McCoy now fills in, and he wasn't the sharpest in relief last week. Over 12 drop backs, McCoy averaged -0.15 Passing NEP per drop back. In approximately half a game of work, one encouraging sign was McCoy's four deep pass attempts (traveling 16+ yards).
Dak Prescott hasn't been particularly strong in 2018, either. Among the same group of quarterbacks, Prescott clocks in seventh-worst with a mark of 0.02 Passing NEP per drop back. Prescott continues to work primarily in the short passing game, and he recorded only three deep pass attempts in Week 11.
Where the Cowboys have a decided advantage is in the running game, and Ezekiel Elliott has performed like a superstar. He clocks in eighth in Rushing NEP per play (0.11), and in terms of total Rushing Net Expected Points, only Todd Gurley and Alvin Kamara have added more value to their teams' running games, and Zeke has done this with a very heavy workload (191 carries).
Adrian Peterson has been involved heavily in his team's offense (171 carries), but he hasn't been nearly quite as efficient. Among that same group, Peterson ranks only 25th (-0.02).
Both offensive attacks are heavily run-oriented, ranking in the bottom-10 of pass-to-run ratio. The Cowboys are the eighth-heaviest running offense (1.26), while the 'Skins are 10th (1.30). Perhaps it is no surprise both teams are also very slow -- the Cowboys rank 22nd in pace (31.74 seconds), and the Redskins rank 28th (32.52 seconds) -- and are among some of the worst offenses in the league (Dallas 23rd, Washington 25th).
One bright spot for both teams has been their defensive units. Using our adjusted per-play metrics, Washington's defense checks in 8th, while we have the Cowboys' defense ranked 12th.
Atlanta Falcons vs. New Orleans Saints
If the first two games were the deviled eggs and cranberry sauce, this nightcap should be the turkey and pumpkin pie all rolled into one, thanks to the league's best team facing off with the 19th-ranked Atlanta Falcons.
Drew Brees has been nothing short of spectacular in 2018. Among QBs with 150 or more drop backs, Brees ranks as the best quarterback both in terms of Passing NEP per drop back (0.48), and in terms of Passing Success Rate (60.93%). It's not a question that the Saints rank both as the league's best offense and passing offense.
In his own right, Matt Ryan has been pretty darn good -- just not as good as Brees. Among that same group, Ryan ranks fifth in Passing NEP per drop back (0.30), and he clocks in third in Passing Success Rate (54.83%).
The two-headed rushing attack for the Saints has been quite prolific yet again. In terms of Rushing NEP per carry, Alvin Kamara ranks fifth (0.16), and Mark Ingram ranks 13th (0.08) on their combined 247 rushing attempts. Kamara has been far more lethal in the passing game, ranking second among running backs in terms of targets (72) and third in receptions (56). Whoever is on the field will present a major problem for the Falcons.
For Atlanta, with Devonta Freeman hitting the IR due to a groin injury, Tevin Coleman has stepped into the mix and struggled in his role, ranking 38th in Rushing NEP per carry (-0.06) and 41st in Rushing Success Rate (35.96%).
Despite these two offense ranking pretty high up in terms of efficiency, the Saints actually rank only 17th in pace (31.21 seconds), while the Falcons have moved slightly quicker at 14th (30.86 seconds).
This contest will feature two poor defenses; the Saints rank 20th and the Falcons rank 31st. The Saints do rank eighth in rushing defense, but the Falcons are fourth-worst against the pass and third-worst against the rush. An offensive explosion certainly seems likely.
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