Most of us have a lot to be thankful for at this holiday. For example, you readers can be thankful that I'm not reviving the tradition of my Thanksgiving poem. It's important to me not to let this column fall into a series of shticks because you deserve better. Also, I forgot to write the poem until it was too late.
The NFL has a lot to be thankful for as Week 12 dawns. The league gets a huge break with its pooch of a Thanksgiving Day schedule. Because it sticks doggedly to the who-cares tradition of having the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys host the two Thanksgiving games, the NFL winds up with usually one and often two lousy games. Thanksgiving is that rare day when college football can compete nose-to-nose with the NFL and not look bad.
But the first game Thursday is Indianapolis at Detroit. Hello, gorgeous! As you may have heard, there's been some bad feelings between those two burgs in the last week or so. Think CBS won't play that up -- clicking its collective tongue all the while, of course? Think the fans in Detroit won't be a little hyped?
That break aside, I can't believe the NFL, which is usually so smart about maintaining the quality of its product, doesn't dump the tradition of having Thanksgiving games in Detroit and Dallas, even when the Lions and Cowboys are bad teams. Can you think of any other way in which the NFL lets the product suffer for the sake of some tradition?
This is aside from the question of whether it's fair for the Lions and Cowboys to be the only teams guaranteed not to have to play a road game on three days' rest. On Thanksgiving Day, when I'm looking for an excuse not to help out in the kitchen, Bears-Cowboys -- combined record: 7-13 -- doesn't cut the cranberry sauce.
I realize that just last year, the Thanksgiving games were pretty good, with the 8-3 Cowboys hosting the 7-4 Dolphins, who clobbered them, and the 3-7 Lions rallying to upset the 6-5 Packers. But that was dumb luck. This century only eight of the 20 teams who have played on Thanksgiving Day have had winning records, and two of those were only 6-5. The Thanksgiving home games should rotate around the league.
This is another of my hopeless causes, so let's not worry too much about it and turn instead to the Week 12 games, and please note that with the opening sentence of this pre-Thanksgiving column, I have fulfilled a clause in the standard sports columnist contract.
Winners in caps:
INDIANAPOLIS (7-3) at Detroit (4-6): The Lions have fallen apart, losing four straight after an encouraging 4-2 beginning, and quarterback Joey Harrington is on the hot seat. Colts quarterback Peyton Manning is just hot. He's thrown 35 TD passes in 10 games, and needs just 14 more over the last six to break Dan Marino's once out-of-sight single-season record. And that's not even mentioning Edgerrin James. The Colts have won three straight, averaging 40 points a game in a close win over the Vikings and routs of the Texans and Bears. The Lions will hope for some traditional Thanksgiving-in-Detroit magic, but: yeah. No.
CHICAGO (4-6) at Dallas (3-7): Gosh, what a pooch of a game. I am so going to be roped into chopping vegetables during this one. Former Michigan quarterback turned baseball player turned failed baseball player and back to quarterback, if you follow, Drew Henson will get his first NFL start. He did OK in relief of the injured Vinny Testaverde last week against the Ravens in a game that was already lost, but don't expect much over four quarters against a good Bears defense.
Baltimore (7-3) at NEW ENGLAND (9-1): The Ravens picked a bad week to lose Jamal Lewis to an ankle injury. Baltimore's won three straight and quarterback Kyle Boller seems to be starting to get the hang of this thing. But without Lewis, a tall order just got a lot taller.
Cleveland (3-7) at CINCINNATI (4-6): Butch Davis, please tidy up your office. We're going to be bringing some coaching candidates through there.
Jacksonville (6-4) at MINNESOTA (6-4): The good news for these two teams is that one of them will have their slide out of the playoff picture interrupted for at least a week. The return of Randy Moss should help the Vikings a lot.
PHILADELPHIA (9-1) at N.Y. Giants (5-5): Eli Manning wasn't bad in his debut against the Falcons last week. The Eagles will make him look bad in his second start.
SAN DIEGO (7-3) at Kansas City (3-7): The Chargers are tied with the Broncos for the AFC West lead, and that makes division games huge for both in case they end up with the same record and one of them hasn't swept the season series. The Chiefs, at 3-6, were already out of the playoffs before they lost to the Patriots Monday, but they probably didn't feel that way. Now, there's no denying it, and there's nothing left to do but play out the string. Not a formula for success.
Tampa Bay (4-6) at CAROLINA (3-7): Both teams are coming around lately, and while it's too late for the defending NFC champs, it's not for the Bucs, who are only one game out of a playoff spot. Of course, so are the Lions, Bears, Saints and Cardinals, and they're behind the Giants and Rams, who are tied for the last berth. That's a lot of not-so-good teams fighting for one spot. Whoever can get hot will take it, and why not the Bucs? You ask why not? I'll tell you why not. Because they're going to lose this game to the Panthers.
Tennessee (4-6) at HOUSTON (4-6): Teams with 4-6 records are still in the hunt in the NFC, but these guys are three games out of the wild-card race in the AFC. It's over. But this should be a pretty entertaining game, particularly if Steve McNair, who's never exactly healthy, is "healthy." Last team with the ball wins, because while the gun can keep these teams from scoring, the defenses can't.
Washington (3-7) at PITTSBURGH (9-1): The Steelers better hope Duce Staley, who was questionable for this game at midweek with a bad hamstring, gets better soon, because they can't keep giving the ball to 32.7808219-year-old (and counting!) Jerome Bettis 29 times every week. With or without Staley, the Steelers' power running game should be enough to overcome a stout Redskins defense, since Washington's offense adds nothing to the cause.
New Orleans (4-6) at ATLANTA (8-2): The Falcons are leading the NFC South by four games with six to play, so they can be forgiven for losing intensity down the stretch, leaving them in danger of getting bitten by anyone. The Saints are as unpredictable as it gets, but since I have to predict something I'll predict a loss.
Buffalo (4-6) at SEATTLE (6-4): Intercepted! Drew Bledsoe of the Bills and the returning Matt Hasselbeck of the Seahawks have combined for 21 of those this season. Running backs Willis McGahee of the Bills and Shaun Alexander of the Seahawks will do most of the offensive damage in this one. The Bills are awful away from Buffalo, which describes Seattle nicely.
MIAMI (1-9) at San Francisco (1-9): The horror.
N.Y. JETS (7-3) at Arizona (4-6): Jets quarterback Chad Pennington says he could return from his shoulder injury as early as next week against the Texans, but that would be optimistic. With that tough one coming up, plus a game at Pittsburgh the following week, the Jets really have to win this winnable but not easy game behind Quincy Carter. It won't be a piece of cake, but with a pair of subpar quarterbacks playing -- Shaun King gets another start for Arizona -- the Jets should be able to rely on their superior ground game.
OAKLAND (3-7) at Denver (7-3): What the Heck Pick of the Week.
St. Louis (5-5) at GREEN BAY (6-4): My preseason prediction that the Packers would stumble, with Brett Favre's decline becoming free fall, was looking pretty good for a while there. But with five straight wins Green Bay has me convinced I was wrong. I'm still not feeling great about them, but with the Vikings staggering the Pack are looking good for another NFC Central crown. I did better with the Rams, saying they'd do well to play .500 ball, and with this game, plus games at Carolina and Arizona and home games against the Eagles and Jets, I think that's still true. Favre and Ahman Green should shred what might be the worst defense in the league.
Previous column: The Washington Nationals
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