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Thursday Night Football Preview: The Least Wonderful Time of Year

Week 15's Thursday Night Football matchup features one of the most boring games you could ask for.

Shaun Hill. Drew Stanton. Two men will enter, and only one man will leave victorious.

Isn't this supposed to be the most wonderful time of year?

Tonight's Thursday Night Football game, on paper, looks like it'll be about as entertaining as a night of C-SPAN. If you're an avid Thursday Night Football watcher and are forced to watch tonight's probable snoozer though, make sure you've got a box of tissues to wipe your tears after every - and there will be a lot of them - Drew Stanton three-and-out. It's going to get that ugly.

But hey, it's another NFL game, and that means people are going to be watching. What should we expect in tonight's backup quarterback duel?

A Low-Scoring Night?

It shouldn't come as a surprise when I say that our list of strongest predictors, or games that have happened in history that compare analytically to the one we're about to see, feature a crazy number of low-scoring contests.

But, to be clear, the average game totals among the top-10 strongest predictors for tonight's contest equals roughly 45. Now, that doesn't mean you should go bet heavily on the over (the game total currently sits at 40) -- that's only 10 of the many predictors we can use to create the most accurate projected outcome imaginable.

On paper, this is going to be a low-scoring affair. Our schedule-adjusted Net Expected Points (NEP) metrics show just that. St. Louis owns the 28th-ranked offense, while the Cardinals' O sits 17th. Arizona's ranking has dropped a few spots, too, since Carson Palmer's season-ending injury.

Meanwhile, the Rams are soaring on defense, and now own the eighth-best unit. Arizona? They rank third with the 6th-best pass defense and 11th-best run defense.

Simple math tells us that this will be low scoring. But is there a chance one of these two teams goes off on offense?

A Chance for Touchdowns

The Steelers and Ravens went toe to toe in an October game back in 2002, where Pittsburgh ended up winning 31 to 18. Why is this relevant? Well, this is the third-strongest predictor of tonight's game, meaning there's a chance that this game features more touchdowns than most would think.

In this scenario, the Steelers represent the Cardinals -- a team led by a mediocre quarterback (Tommy Maddox), a bad running back (Amos Zereoue) and a decent defense (the Steelers ranked 12th in Adjusted Defensive NEP that season).

The relatively high 31 points scored came because Pittsburgh was able to pick off Jeff Blake (Shaun Hill in this scenario) three times, setting up for short scores. Maddox threw for 172 yards, 2 touchdowns and 1 interception, but his attempts were limited to just 24. Zereoue didn't take on a big workload, either, running the ball just 13 times. The reason Pittsburgh won, quite simply, was because they were opportunistic on defense.

Jeff Blake threw the ball 50 times in that game, while Jamal Lewis could only gain 34 yards on 13 attempts. In essence, if the Cardinals can stop Tre Mason tonight, they'll force the game into Shaun Hill's hands. The Cardinals' number-six pass defense can then be the difference-maker for Arizona.

The fourth-highest game on the strongest predictors list features a matchup where the Rams would hypothetically be the ones scoring points. This one was an Eagles versus Cowboys game from 2003, where the Eagles won 36-10. In that contest, Donovan McNabb, who was having one of his worst seasons as a pro throwing the ball and actually does match up nicely with Shaun Hill in this case, threw for 240 yards on 34 pass attempts. The Eagles' Correll Buckhalter rushed for 115 yards on 13 attempts, scoring on a long 64-yarder.

On the opposite side of the field, Quincy Carter (who's Drew Stanton in this scenario) threw 24 passes, completed 15 of them, but only tallied 93 passing yards. He also threw two interceptions. The Rams' secondary now ranks seventh in the NFL according to our numbers, better than their 11th-ranked rush defense, so it makes sense that this could all unfold.

But if the Rams are the team who ends up scoring touchdowns tonight, it'll more than likely be because of Shaun Hill, not necessarily due to the high workload from Tre Mason. That's what makes the Arizona's pass defense versus the Rams' passing offense such an interesting matchup tonight.

Fantasy Implications

The majority of the offensive players in this game are fringe starters in 12-team leagues, perhaps outside of Tre Mason. The one area where fantasy owners probably care most about is team defense, so let's dig into what these two units may do tonight.

The Rams have been playing unbelievable defense, and have ranked as the seventh-, fifth-, first- and first-best defense in fantasy football over the last four weeks. It only seems reasonable that they'll go off against an offense led by Drew Stanton, right?

Not exactly. Only two defenses have ranked higher than 14th in a given week versus Arizona this season. One was the Dallas Cowboys back when Carson Palmer was still playing, while the other was the Seattle Seahawks in Seattle. Only the Seahawks have scored double-digit fantasy points against Arizona, but their total against them is actually a pretty average one for Seattle at home. In other words, the Cardinals aren't this cakewalk matchup you'd expect. You should still play the Rams without other options, but keep this in mind when rolling them out.

St. Louis, on the other hand, has been a nice boom or bust offense for fantasy defenses this season. (I'd probably consider it more of a boom matchup against a tough Arizona defense despite the game being played in St. Louis.) In 13 games, 8 fantasy defenses have ranked in the weekly top eight against the Rams -- probability-wise, there's a 62% chance the Cardinals finish as one of the best defenses this week. Based on this alone, you'd have to feel good about using them.

Clearly things can go in many directions during an island game featuring two really inconsistent, unpredictable offenses, but our projections are all over the Cardinals performing at a high level from a fantasy perspective tonight.

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