Happy Thanksgiving week, folks. As we’ve hit the home stretch, the final third of the season, we’ll slim down the number of games and take a look at only the most important stuff that pertains to Week 12:
1. We’ll go chronologically for the Thursday games at least. Houston travels to Detroit for the traditional early Thanksgiving game, and both teams have a little something to prove coming off Week 11. The Texans won, the Lions lost, but both games were marred by warts. The major problem for the Texans was not getting Arian Foster cranked up — although Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson certainly didn’t seem to mind — and having trouble stopping the Jaguars’ previously dormant passing duo of Chad Henne and Justin Blackmon. One receiver they won’t have to concern themselves with is suspended Lions WR Titus Young, who was excoriated by head coach Jim Schwartz for Young’s bad behavior. That slides Ryan Broyles and Mike Thomas up a notch each on the totem pole. If the Texans suffer as many broken coverages as they did vs. the Jags (shocking coming off an excellent game against the Bears), the Lions might be able to get back on track with the big play.
2. There is an air of panic surrounding the Lions right now, but Schwartz took a stand against Young’s selfish behavior and has to hope that the message is heard by the other 52 players. “When you are a player,” the coach said, “it’s your job to make the team happy, not the team’s job to make you happy.” At 4-6, few are happy. There are spats on the sideline, players crowing in the locker room and a fan base upset at its team’s performance. Winning Thursday would be a major step forward with such a brutal road ahead; five of the final six opponents, starting with the Texans, have records above the .500 mark. The Lions made the playoffs last season by winning three of their final four games but all three came against teams that missed the postseason. Believe it or not, the Texans could clinch a playoff spot this week with a win and help. They need one of two scenarios to happen, but both include the Titans, Chargers and Bengals all losing or tying. Don’t ask. Just pass the gravy bowl.
3. There is a stage set for Robert Griffin III to show the nation — in his home state, no less — just how good he is. Remember Randy Moss at Dallas in 1998? Griffin is coming off an incredible game against the Eagles, with the highest completion percentage (93.3) in a game for a QB who also threw four TD passes since 1994. The last guy to do it? Steve Young. RG3’s not on that level yet, but he’s confident and fearless. So, even though the Redskins are banged up defensively and come in one game behind the Cowboys in the standings, they’re the team that appears a little more steady right now. It's crazy to say that considering their three consecutive losses prior to the bye.
4. The Cowboys are 6-0 all-time against the Redskins on Thanksgiving Day and Tony Romo is giving President Obama a run at the title of Mr. November with a record of 21-3 in the month, but really, so what? Did anything the Cowboys managed to do against the Browns (in maybe the least-exciting overtime game in recent memory) convince anyone that they are a playoff-worthy team right now? The offensive line — which may or may not have the services of OLT Tyron Smith (high left ankle sprain) — was horrible in surrendering seven sacks and 10 hits (at the very minimum) on Romo, and the coaches appeared to not notice this flaw for the first 30 minutes of game time. With RB DeMarco Murray (foot) likely out, it’s probably going to take a big performance by the Cowboys’ defense against Griffin to earn a win.
5. The Jets win and yet they still lose. Bart Scott’s post-victory media-mutiny chants show that the team’s focus is elsewhere, even with the postseason still strangely in sniffing range. You’d think that a team that finally received efficient quarterbacking and sound defense in the same game (on the road, no less) would be less worried about anonymous quotes and more worried about a — theoretically — huge game at home on Thursday against the Patriots. You’d think. Rex Ryan tried his best to reel things in and cranked up the hyperbole machine on Tom Brady and all things New England and put the emphasis on the big challenge that lies ahead. "We know that we have to make up a ton of ground, and there's only one way to do it, and that's to focus each day and try to get better," Ryan said. "That's where we're at."
6. One player the Patriots certainly won’t have for Thursday is TE Rob Gronkowski (broken forearm, out 4-6 weeks), which is just too bad for many reasons, but the most important of which is that John Madden will be in the house for the NBC broadcast and he most certainly will be bringing a turducken or an eight-legged turkey-like beast with him. The Patriots hope to have TE Aaron Hernandez back for this game but might have to play their weekly roulette of which unexpected player will step up on offense (Danny Woodhead? Julian Edelman? Shane Vereen?). Defensively, they hope to keep the big plays (two INT returns for touchdowns Sunday) rolling against Jets QB Mark Sanchez, who is coming off one of the most efficient games of his career.
7. Vikings DEs Jared Allen and Brian Robison are quietly back at it again. They have combined for 12½ sacks — seven for Allen, 5½ for Robison — and if you throw in jack-of-all-trades rusher Everson Griffen, the Vikings have a fierce rush. They’ve been held a bit in check the past three games but have a tasty matchup against the Bears’ offensive tackles, J’Marcus Webb and Gabe Carimi, who were abused early and often in the blowout loss to the 49ers on Monday. The Bears must pick up the pieces quickly from Monday’s massacre and get ready for another physical team based on running and defense, and the Vikings most certainly will be the better-rested team coming off their Week 11 bye.
8. Jay Cutler will be back for this game. That’s good — if his protection somehow gets better — because he is certainly needed. The Bears’ lead in the division is gone (they’re tied with the Packers), and the Vikings are breathing down their necks just a game back at 6-4. There is a sense of panic following the Week 11 loss, and now it’s not just with offensive coordinator Mike Tice. The defense suddenly is under fire, having allowed second-year 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick to torch them. But it was more than that, of course: The 49ers’ offensive line mauled the Bears’ front seven much of the game, and the safeties repeatedly were torched. The Vikings will feed them a few helpings (and then a few more) of Adrian Peterson and Minnesota also could get a lot of Percy Harvin, who missed the big win over the Lions before the bye with an ankle injury. The Vikings don’t need to be reminded they have lost four in a row at Chicago, but they also have to think this is their best chance to beat the Bears there in years.
9. The Packers have won five in a row, and though a few of those victories lacked style points, including Sunday’s 24-20 comeback win over the Lions, Aaron Rodgers and Co. have a habit of getting things done offensively when they have to. This is a flashback game against the Giants Sunday night — first to Week 13 a year ago when Rodgers’ final-minute magic act stole a victory and kept the Packers unbeaten, and then later to the playoff game at Lambeau Field, where the Giants’ front beat up Rodgers mercilessly and left the Packers stunned and out of the playoffs. One player who was not a big part of either game last season offensively (but suddenly appears almost irreplaceable) is Randall Cobb, who could give the Giants fits. Cobb has six TD catches in the past four games and caught the eventual game-winner with 1:55 left against Detroit. “Randall’s a big-time player for us,” Rodgers said. “He’s going to be a (key) guy for us for a long time and is going to be a big part of our offense. He made an incredible catch (Sunday against the Lions).”
10. The Giants gave much-needed rest to their walking wounded — primarily QB Eli Manning (sore arm), RB Ahmad Bradshaw (neck) and WR Hakeem Nicks (knee, foot) — and come into this home game against the Packers with a little mental break, too. The mission is clear at 6-4: They need to win as many games as they can with the Cowboys a game back and the Redskins two back. Every game on the schedule is against teams that as of yet have not given up, save for the Week 17 matchup against the Eagles. “It’s a six-game schedule now,” Giants head coach Tom Coughlin said about the message for the remainder of the season. This is where the Giants tend to crank it up. They outplayed the Packers for much of the regular-season loss (38-35), beat them soundly in the playoff game (37-20) and come in as the more rested team.
11. Perhaps the most memorable game of the 2011 season was Saints-49ers in the divisional playoffs out in Candlestick Park, as the teams ebbed and flowed between defensive struggle and offensive sortie in what went down as a classic the moment the final whistle sounded and the Niners had won 36-32. Sunday afternoon’s game at New Orleans between these teams suddenly has taken on more importance than a mere month ago. The 49ers were steamrolling toward a division crown at the end of October, but a tie to the Rams, and the Seahawks winning two in a row have put that on hold for the time being. And following Monday’s rout of the Bears, a terrific new story line has emerged. Kaepernick’s stunningly good first start suddenly has Alex Smith's job on the line. Jim Harbaugh wasn’t tipping his hand early in the week, saying after the victory that he’d follow the “hot hand” down the stretch. For as well as Smith, who is recovering from a concussion, has played in all but one game this season, that at least opens the door for Kaepernick to hang on to the job for at least this game.
12. The Saints kicked off their eight-game win streak to close out ’11 in Week Nine. They have won three in a row this season, a streak that started in Week Nine, and suddenly are among the more feared teams in the NFL despite sitting at 5-5 and in the ninth slot in the standings in the NFC. The Saints are the sixth team in NFL history to start 0-4 and get to 5-5 or better after 10 games. Of course, the battle everyone wants to see is the Saints’ scorching offense (tied for an NFC-best 28.7 points per game) against the Niners’ “D” (allowing an NFL-low 13.4 points per game). Aldon Smith, who had 5½ sacks Monday and who now has 29 in 26 career games, will be hunting for Drew Brees, who not only has the TD streak going but who also is the first QB ever with a 20-yard completion in 100 consecutive games. That one right there is for the stat geeks.
13. At 8-0, they crowed for respect. At 9-1, there suddenly is concern about the division slipping away. Could it be that the Falcons can blow the NFC South division title? It would be hard: The feisty Buccaneers are three full games back at 6-4, and the left-for-dead but suddenly dangerous Saints are four back at 5-5. The Falcons face two games that will define their season — Sunday against the Bucs in Tampa, followed by a quick turnaround at home against the Saints on Thursday in Week 13. Win both, and the South is theirs. Split or lose both, and it could be up for grabs. QB Matt Ryan was the first quarterback in more than 45 years (Green Bay’s Bart Starr, 1967) to throw zero TD passes and five INTs and still win a game, but he says he’s ready to shake off the career-worst performance and lead his team to a division title. Ryan deflected any nerves he or anyone else might have had with humor. “That’s great company to be in,” Ryan said with a smile after (barely) beating the Cardinals. “Bart is one of the greats of all time. It doesn’t happen very often, it really doesn’t. But it comes down to really good teammates that really picked us up (Sunday) and made the plays when we needed to.”
14. But watch out for the Buccaneers. Sunday’s theft of a victory over the Panthers showed how no lead is safe with QB Josh Freeman at the helm. After a lost 2011 season, Freeman has revived his 2010 prowess (25 TDs, six INTs) and even has taken a step forward in his play, which has been incendiary of late (16 TDs, three INTs in the past six games). Credit the strong play of WRs Vincent Jackson (who might be the best free-agent signing not named Peyton Manning) and Mike Williams, TE Dallas Clark and RB Doug Martin. With a bountiful offseason and improvement from within — most notably from Freeman — new coach Greg Schiano has a playoff-caliber roster. Although his defense (especially rookie S Mark Barron) is not coming off its best game, the contest with the Falcons could come down to which unit makes the big plays on that side of the ball. The Falcons held the Cardinals’ offense, led by the QB combo of John Skelton and Ryan Lindley, to 178 total net yards last week, but Freeman — if you have yet to watch the TD throw to Jackson, do so now — is a different kind of animal.
15. And we save the worst for last. Panthers-Eagles on Monday night. Really, what non-sarcastic name can you dub this game? (Seriously, try.) You have terminal Andy Reid on one sideline, and likely-too-late-to-be-saved Ron Rivera on the other. Say this for the Panthers: At least they have not quit on their coach — not in the first 55 minutes of the game, anyway. Sure, the team has been miserable in one-score affairs under Rivera (a former Reid assistant, incidentally) and they seem, like their coach, to suffer brain cramps at games’ ends. But the 3-7 Eagles have been suffering those ailments at the starts of games recently and have been unable — or don’t care to put in the effort — to come back from them. They have lost six in a row and have surrendered the lead first in five of them, getting outscored 61-14 in the first quarter this season. The 2-8 Panthers have lost 7-of-8 games, but six of them have been close (horseshoes, hand grenades, all that …). Nick Foles must get better after a terrible first start, and he might have to do so without LeSean McCoy, who suffered a concussion in the final two minutes of the 25-point loss to the Redskins. My word, this is just depressing. This is supposed to be a happy week. It must end here.