Thursday Night Football Preview: A Thanksgiving Feast of Games
This Thursday, the NFL has given all us football fans three games to be thankful for.
In the early game, the Detroit Lions will try to keep their mini win streak going, while the Philadelphia Eagles look to snap a two-game losing skid. Then, the undefeated Carolina Panthers take on a Dallas Cowboys team looking to save a lost season. And in the primetime matchup, the Green Bay Packers will try to keep their claim of the top spot in the NFC North standings when they take on division rivals the Chicago Bears.
So what will these three contests have in store for us?
Eagles at Lions
The biggest question mark on the Eagles side of the ball will, once again, be at quarterback. Despite Sam Bradford being cleared from the concussion protocol, he's still not guaranteed to start, and many are expecting the team to call Mark Sanchez's number for a second straight game. Though his remarkable inefficiency last week in which Sanchez threw for three interceptions -- bringing his Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) per drop back to an abysmal -0.09 on the season -- if he gets the start, Sanchez will hope to turn things around when he faces the Lions 30th-ranked pass defense according to our NEP metric.
But with the return of emerging lock-down corneraback Darius Slay to the Detroit secondary -- who just held Amari Cooper to one reception for four yards on four targets this past week -- whoever starts at quarterback for the Ealges this Thursday may have a tougher time moving the ball through the air than they might expect.
It doesn't get much prettier for the Eagles in the ground game. DeMarco Murray has had a fairly productive season -- he owns an above-average 0.002 Rushing NEP per attempt this season -- but the Eagles' lead back has recently had his effort questioned after sliding to avoid contact on a 3rd-and-1 carry against the Dolphins last week. Despite the fact that, while a few of his teammates may want nothing more than see Ryan Mathews get a little bit more of the workload against the Lions 21st-ranked run defense as a result of all this, with the oft-injured tailback still in the league's concussion protocol and on a short week, Murray will likely dominate the touches out of the Eagles backfield once again.
After cleaning out their front office, the Lions are riding a two-game winning streak that began shortly after the firing of general manager Martin Mayhew and president Tom Lewand. Whether this trend holds will be largely up to Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson, and Detroit's passing game as they take on the Eagles 10th-ranked defense against the pass.
While Stafford's 0.01 Passing NEP per drop back isn't exactly a game-changing number -- its actually the seventh worst mark among all quarterbacks with at least 100 pass attempts -- it's still better than the Lions' non-existent run game. Ameer Abdullah, Joique Bell, and Theo Riddick are facing a defense that just ceded 235 rushing yards to Doug Martin and ranks 23rd in the league in efficiency against the rush, but with Detroit's trio of tailbacks combining to produce the league's 10th least efficient rushing attack, we shouldn't expect much on the ground for Detroit in this contest.
Panthers at Cowboys
Quarterback Cam Newton leads a 10-0 Panthers squad into Dallas as he continues his claim for this year's league MVP honors. Going up against the Cowboys' 15th-ranked passing defense according to our advanced metrics, Newton will lean on his most reliable target in tight end Greg Olsen once again. Olsen not only leads the team -- and all tight ends for that matter -- with his 83 targets on the year, but he's also the seventh most efficient tight end with 0.78 Reception NEP per target.
In the running game, running back Jonathan Stewart finds himself in a prime matchup, as he faces Dallas' 29th-ranked rush defense. As the 15th most efficient tailback in the league with a Rushing NEP per attempt of 0.01, Stewart should be able to rack up chunks of yards on the ground against a below-average Cowboys' unit.
The return of Tony Romo from injury ended the Cowboys' seven-game losing streak. Unfortunately for him, Romo and company will face a tough task in Week 12, as the team hosts a Carolina defense that ranks as the third best unit overall this year. Beyond this, with Panthers' shutdown corner Josh Norman likely shadowing Dez Bryant, and the Panthers owning the second-most efficient defense against the pass, expect Dallas' passing game to struggle a bit more this week than they did against the Dolphins last Sunday.
All this may force the Cowboys to take to the ground to try to move the ball on Carolina. And after notching 129 yards on 29 carries last week in a win over the Dolphins, expect Darren McFadden to get all the carries he can handle against the Panthers 14th-ranked run defense.
Bears at Packers
After stumbling into a three-game losing streak, the Packers seemed to get back on track this past Sunday with a win over the Vikings. With Aaron Rodgers uncharacteristically struggling due to injuries to his receiving corps, the Packers signal-caller will try to keep this momentum going this week as he, Randall Cobb, James Jones, and Davante Adams take on the Bears' 27th-ranked passing defense.
On the ground, it looks as if Eddie Lacy has leapfrogged James Starks for the lead back job in Green Bay. And despite the coaching staff stating they intend to maintain a "one-two punch" at running back, with Lacy dominating touches in the second half of their contest against Minnesota this past Sunday, the Packers' third-year back will likely get the first shots at the Bears 30th-ranked run defense.
On the Bears' side of the ball, after what looked to be an early season fire sale, Chicago has fared much better than many were expecting. But with the Bears sitting at a 4-6 record, that still isn't saying much.
Jay Cutler will hope to get dominant wideout Alshon Jeffery back in this contest after he missed last week's narrow loss to the Broncos with shoulder and groin injuries. As the Bears most efficient wideout with a 0.84 Reception NEP per target, if Jeffery can't go in this contest, Cutler will need to rely on his pair of pass catching tight ends in Martellus Bennett and Zach Miller to keep pace with Green Bay's fifth-ranked offense.
In the rushing department, with rookie running back Jeremy Langford putting on quite the performance over the last few weeks in Matt Forte's absence, even if Forte suits up in this contest as expected, it's going to be nearly impossible to put that genie back in the bottle. As a result, expect Langford to still get some playing time in order to exploit the Packers' 25th-ranked run defense.
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