Thanksgiving Day NFL Preview: Detroit and Dallas Are Both Finally Good At Football
Well, folks, it's Thanksgiving, and for me, that usually means two things: food and football. Like any good Pittsburgher worth his salt, I usually spend the morning of Thanksgiving on a middle school soccer field with a bunch of other dudes who are probably too old to still be tackling each other in subzero climes. After that, I come home and vegetate in front of the TV, watching the Lions get shellacked again by the Packers or whoever. Then I eat far too much turkey and cranberry sauce, followed by more vegetation, this time while watching the Cowboys get shellacked by whoever. It's a grand tradition, and one I'm proud to participate in year after year.
This year will be a little different, as my work is keeping me in New York City for Thanksgiving. Instead of eating my mom's turkey and mashed potatoes, I'll be having a prix-fixe dinner at a restaurant with my girlfriend; instead of playing in a Turkey Bowl, I'll be playing Super Smash Bros. while jogging in place, or something. But you'd better believe that I'll be heading to a bar somewhere to watch some football when it's all said and done. It's just not Thanksgiving unless you get to watch guys twice your size send each other to the hospital for three hours, is it?
And luckily, we've got some great games on the docket this year. In this special Thursday football preview, I'll be breaking down each of the three Thanksgiving games, which - combined - feature only one team with a losing record (the 5-6 Bears, who are down but nowhere near out).
It's a far cry from my high school days, when the pre-Calvin Johnson Lions were hapless on Turkey Day and the NFL hadn't decided that an extra night of football was more important than player safety. Back then, these games were something you fell asleep to; now, they're something to keep you from falling asleep. (For the record, next time someone tries to tell you you ate too much tryptophan, feel free to tell them that tryptophan is a common amino acid found in all meats, and that it's actually the high amount of carbs in a typical Thanksgiving dinner that makes you feel drowsy. #nerdalert)
Chicago Bears at Detroit Lions
It's already Week 13 of the 2014 NFL season, but believe it or not, this is the first meeting between the Lions and Bears this year. (They'll have a rematch in Chicago just three weeks from now.) The Lions were sitting pretty at 7-2 before consecutive losses to the surging Cardinals and Patriots; now, with a wealth of strong contenders in the NFC, it's looking like Detroit will have to be pretty scrappy moving forward if they want to make the playoffs. Two factors working in their favor: they've got an easy schedule (four out of their remaining five games are against teams with losing records, including the Buccaneers and Vikings), and their defense is one of the best in the league. Ndamukong Suh and company have been excellent in 2014, ranking third overall among defensive units with -14.09 Adjusted Defensive Net Expected Points (NEP) total while simply shutting down opponents' rushing games in a way no other team can touch.
The Bears have had a distinctly mediocre season, one borne out by their record. Marc Trestman's "high-powered" offense has been anything but, despite claiming some of the league's premier offensive weapons - Matt Forte, Brandon Marshall, and Alshon Jeffery - among its ranks.
The rushing game has been above average, ranking 12th in Adjusted Rushing NEP, but the 26th-ranked passing attack is a big surprise, considering what people expected in the preseason from the marriage of Trestman and notoriously-sullen gunslinger "Smokin'" Jay Cutler.
It's the defense, though, that's been an issue for Chicago from the outset. They do what they're supposed to do against bad teams (holding the Falcons, Buccaneers, and Vikings to 13 points each), but against a good team this unit seems helpless, surrendering 51 points to the Patriots a few weeks ago and an insane 93 combined points to the Packers in their two meetings this year.
If there's a way forward for the Bears on at Ford Field, it's got to be through the air - with the kind of weapons that Cutler has at his disposal, and the fact that the Lions are somewhat weaker (although not much) against the pass than they are against the run, a passing attack has to be the way to go. For the Lions, though, the game plan is simple: stifle the Bears' offense, and let Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson hook up all day. That result would mirror one of our strongest predictor games, an 89.11% match that pitted the Browns and Eagles against each other in 2008. That game saw the Philadelphia defense shut down Cleveland to the tune of 10 points, as Browns quarterback Ken Dorsey threw for just 156 yards and 2 interceptions and the Eagles held running back Jamal Lewis to 32 yards on 14 carries.
Who knows, though, what a non-Ken Dorsey quarterback might do to a comparable defense? To see what our predicted outcome for this game is, check out our game projections.
Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys
With the Cowboys arguably the best they've been in years, owners of an 8-3 record despite a defense that projected to be one of the worst in the league during the preseason, this one's looking like a hell of a game, especially since the Mark Sanchez-led Eagles have been no slouches in the point-scoring department.
Sanchez has managed at least 300 yards a game over the last three weeks, and the three Eagles wins during his tenure have resulted in just under 40 points a game. But despite Philly's reputation as an offensive juggernaut under Chip Kelly, it's actually their defense that's been the more outstanding unit lately, that blowout in Green Bay notwithstanding. The Eagles' defense ranks seventh overall by Adjusted Defensive NEP and sixth against the rush. Combine that with Lesean McCoy's reemergence as a reliable threat and the jack-of-all-trades versatility of Darren Sproles on offense and returns, and the Eagles are looking like a future division title winner...
...Unless Dallas has something to say about it. It goes without saying that DeMarco Murray has been an unstoppable force this year, if only because he gets fed like no other running back in the league (his 268 carries lead the league; in second is McCoy, with 217), and Dez Bryant has reasserted himself as one of the best and most relied-upon wide receivers in the league, ranking 9th in the league in Reception NEP, 10th in targets, and 11th in receptions. The Cowboys' defense has been middling-to-bad (21st against the rush, 27th against the pass) but nowhere near the college-caliber unit pundits were predicting before the season began. And Tony Romo is looking to build off of two excellent starts against the Giants and Jaguars in which he threw a combined seven touchdowns and zero interceptions.
With a game that looks to be as tight as this one, some insight can be gained once again from - you guessed it - our strongest predictor games. Specifically, I'm looking at a contest between the Jaguars and Chargers back in 2004, one which the Chargers won, 34-21. It's worth pointing out that that was a fairly high-scoring affair 10 years ago, even if it looks like par for the course today. The Chargers' performance was 2014-Cowboys-esque, though, even then; lead rusher Ladainian Tomlinson (a serious candidate for My Favorite Football Player Ever) had a high-volume game reminiscent of Murray (19 carries for 56 yards and a score before ceding rushing duties to Jesse Chatman in garbage time), and pre-breakout Drew Brees played game manager, throwing for 211 yards and two touchdowns to Antonio Gates.
The Jaguars, meanwhile, struggled to produce much in the early going, with Byron Leftwich throwing two picks and 14 of Jacksonville's 21 points coming in the fourth quarter. I'd argue the Eagles are a more complete team than the Cowboys, especially with that defense, but would it surprise anyone to see Mark Sanchez enter Dallas and do what Leftwich did?
This one's too close to call, so head on over to our game projections to take a look at the outcome predicted by our advanced metrics.
Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco 49ers
Finally, in the prime-time slot we've got the defending Super Bowl champions taking on their prime division rivals. Both teams sport a solid 7-4 record, but it's impossible not to feel somehow like both Seattle and San Francisco have disappointed somewhat in 2014, isn't it?
For the Seahawks, that may be because three of their four losses came within the first six games of the season, and sometimes it can be hard to shake that initial impression of a team. Since then, though, they've gone 4-1, notching a huge win against the dominant Cardinals last week. The rest of the year will be pretty brutal for Seattle, with matchups against the Eagles, 49ers, Cardinals, and surprisingly stout Rams to close it out, but it seems like this is a team that could be hitting its stride just in time. Marshawn Lynch remains one of the most punishing (if reticent) rushers in the league, and he's complemented his ground game with an excellent and efficient role in the passing game, ranking third among running backs in Reception NEP. It's impossible to talk about the Seahawks' top-ranked rushing game, though, without mentioning Russell Wilson. He's done things on the ground that we've not seen since Michael Vick 10 years ago, racking up 41.27 Rushing NEP on 71 carries. To put that in perspective, the top-ranked running back - Justin Forsett - has 28.00 Rushing NEP.
In the 49ers defense, though, Lynch and Wilson will be running into...well, not a brick wall, but something akin to a wooden fence, as San Francisco ranks a respectable 13th against the run. It's against the pass that San Francisco has made their name in 2014, bolstered in large part by the resurgent Antoine Bethea; the 49ers rank second against the pass in 2014, behind only the Patriots, shutting down quarterbacks good (Drew Brees) and bad (whoever Washington is trotting out these days) alike.
That secondary, though, is the saving grace of this team. On offense, things are kind of a mess. The 49ers rank dead last in the NFL in rushing, with featured back Frank Gore finally showing his age after all these years; he's third-to-last in the league in Rushing NEP, ahead of only Andre Ellington and Darren McFadden. Backup Carlos Hyde isn't much better, ranking eighth-to-last in total NEP among running backs, which suggests that San Francisco's problems on the ground extend beyond personnel at the running back position. (It's worth noting that quarterback Colin Kaepernick, an above-average passer by numberFire's metrics this year, is third-to-last among quarterbacks in Rushing NEP, as well.)
So what do we make of this game, then? If only there were some sort of comparable game from years past that could -- oh, wait, there is! Our strongest predictor (89.64%) dates back to 2001, when the Browns and Steelers faced off in a November game that the Steelers won by the rather strange score of 15-12. The Browns actually scored a touchdown, a safety, and a field goal, while Pittsburgh's Kris Brown kicked five field goals, including one in overtime to clinch the victory.
Disregarding the weird methods of scoring, though, it's probable we'll see a low-scoring, defensive struggle between these two teams. Seattle ranks 10th overall on defense and fifth against the run, which means that Kaep and co. will likely be tossing the ball quite a bit; that's not unlike Tim Couch back in '01, who threw the ball 33 times in that game (a pretty high number for 2001). You can also expect a heavy dose of rushes from Lynch and Wilson, in much the same way that Jerome Bettis racked up 163 yards on 29 carries in our predictor game.
Check out our game projections to see what our metrics think of this one, but to be frank, this is the type of game that makes people say "That's why they play the game."