On the first Thanksgiving, 2004 Hall of Fame inductee Fritz Pollard, the NFL's first black quarterback, led the Akron Pros to a 7-0 win over the Canton Bulldogs.
That was in 1920. You probably learned about the first Thanksgiving in school and thought it was all about Pilgrims and Indians. You were half right. The Bulldogs' star player was Jim Thorpe.
Ever since that day, the NFL has always had a game in Akron on Thanksgiving Day.
Wait, that's not right. The league eventually found a home for a Thanksgiving game in Detroit, and later another home for a second game in Dallas. But the point is, Thanksgiving wasn't really Thanksgiving until the NFL started playing football.
Next year, when I'm trying to figure out how to start my Wednesday column Thanksgiving week without falling back on the old "a lot to be thankful for" gambit, I'll talk about how Thanksgiving wasn't really Thanksgiving until the NFL started playing football on television. You don't get this job without being able to fill space, buddy boy.
Anyway, the NFL has a good Thanksgiving nightcap when the Denver Broncos visit the Dallas Cowboys. That's a relief after the two dogs it presented last year.
That's the thing about the Thanksgiving Day games: The odds of poochhood are pretty high. One game's always in Detroit -- 10-win seasons in the 27 years since the switch to a 16-game schedule: 2 -- so there's only going to be a good matchup if A) it's one of those rare years when the Lions are good, or B) the Cowboys are good, which happens more often than the Lions being good, and 3) the hand-picked opponent of whichever of those teams is any good actually turns out to be as good as the league office expects it to be.
And it's not unusual, just in case you followed that last sentence, for a team expected to be good before the season to arrive at Thanksgiving with a record like 3-7 or 4-6. Hello, Philadelphia.
Speaking of bucking preseason expectations, let's check in on this column's Panel o' Experts, in which a slate of nationally known and respected and highly paid football commentators, plus me, plus my son Buster, pick the straight-up winner of every NFL game.
The leader after 11 weeks: Buster, who leads Sean Salisbury of ESPN by three games. With six weeks to go, the coin-flippinest 2-year-old in America is threatening to become the first person ever to actually collect the prize for winning one of this column's contests: dinner at my house.
Salisbury watches games, studies film, huddles with coaches and scouts, and calls on the expertise he gained by playing quarterback for 13 years or so at Southern Cal and another five in the NFL to make his picks. Buster takes all favorites of six points or more, then flips a coin for the rest of the games. Saves an awful lot of time and, so far, has been more effective.
Here are the Panel o' Experts standings:
1. Buster, Coinflip Quarterly -- 110-50
2. Sean Salisbury, ESPN -- 107-53
3. Yahoo Users -- 106-54
4. Chris Mortensen, ESPN -- 103-57
5. Vinnie Iyer, Sporting News -- 102-58
5. Mark Schlereth, ESPN -- 102-58
7. Mike Golic, ESPN -- 101-59
7. Merril Hoge, ESPN -- 101-59
7. King Kaufman, Salon -- 101-59
10. Cris Carter, Yahoo -- 100-60
11. Larry Beil, Yahoo -- 99-61
12. Ron Jaworski, ESPN -- 95-65
13. Eric Allen, ESPN -- 93-67
13. Peter King, S.I. -- 93-65
15. Joe Theismann, ESPN -- 89-61
Note that the contest is based on wins, so guys who don't pick every game, Joe Theismann and Peter King currently, don't get credit for a good winning percentage, which neither has anyway. A nonpick is a loss.
I'm asking you to note that so you won't notice your humble narrator's free fall through the standings after consecutive weeks of 7-7 and 8-8. I should flip a coin instead. Save time.
I will inevitably get letters asking for Buster's picks this week, so I'll tell you, but only after my customary warning never to place wagers based on what you read in this column. Thank you.
The favorites of six points or more this week are Cincinnati, Tennessee and Oakland. As of Wednesday morning there was no line on the Indianapolis-Pittsburgh game, but it will be closer than six points, I think, if Ben Roethlisberger plays. Buster uses Danny Sheridan's odds at USA Today if you want to check for yourself.
In the rest of the games, including Indy-Pittsburgh, Buster's coin is picking all visiting teams except Buffalo, Arizona and the Jets. It's a testament to the level of competition in the NFL that in picking 10 of 13 road teams -- road teams have won 37.5 percent of all NFL games this year, counting the Week 2 Saints "home" game in New Jersey as a home game for the Giants -- Buster hasn't made a single wacky pick. Arizona at home over Jacksonville is pretty bold, though.
In the wake of all the verbiage to this point, here's a thankfully quick look -- have to do that once in a pre-Thanksgiving column; union rules -- at Week 12, a week during which, in the pioneering spirit of Fritz Pollard, I will cook a turkey for the first time. Family members are beating the rush by falling ill in advance.
Winners in caps.
ATLANTA (6-4) at Detroit (4-6): The Lions sacked Michael Vick six times last year and pulled an upset. Not this year, though the Falcons' recent struggles are real.
DENVER (8-2) at Dallas (7-3): If it weren't for the Colts, everybody would be talking about the Broncos.
ST. LOUIS (4-6) at Houston (1-9): Two teams playing out the string before hiring new coaches for next year. This is a rare chance at a win for the Texans, but I think the Rams' offense is good enough to hold 'em off.
San Francisco (2-8) at TENNESSEE (2-8): Speaking of a rare chance at a win, here's one for both of these teams. This actually could be a pretty entertaining game. Both teams are a little better than 2-8 would lead you to believe. The Titans have been in almost every game and the 49ers are showing signs of competitiveness lately.
SAN DIEGO (6-4) at Washington (5-5): The Chargers are the best 6-4 team in captivity, and their offense is humming. Which reminds me: Anybody want to buy a slightly used quarterback by the name of Philip Rivers? Washington has lost five of seven since starting 3-0, and really needed to beat the Raiders last week.
New England (6-4) at KANSAS CITY (6-4): There's 6-4 and then there's 6-4. The Patriots are leading their division by two games and their remaining opponents have a combined record of 24-36. Only two of the six upcoming foes have winning records. The Chiefs are tied for second place in their division, two games behind the Broncos, one game behind a wild-card playoff spot, and their remaining opponents, all of them winning teams, have a combined record of 41-19.
The Chiefs have to win this game to stay alive. Although they've been leaning heavily on Larry Johnson, who ran for about 12 miles against the Texans last week, I think Trent Green and the passing game will be able to make hay against New England's injury-riddled pass defense. That, home-field advantage and desperation, and they're my pick.
Cleveland (4-6) at MINNESOTA (5-5): Three weeks in a row I've picked against the Vikings and they've won. So I'm jumping on the bandwagon, and of course they're going to lose by 30.
CHICAGO (7-3) at Tampa Bay (7-3): OK, I was impressed by the Bears' win over the Panthers. I was also impressed by the Bucs' win over the Falcons. But I'll jump on another bandwagon here and take the New Monsters.
CAROLINA (7-3) at Buffalo (4-6): The answer to that question I posed a few weeks ago -- can you win the conference with one (1) offensive weapon, even if that weapon is Steve Smith? That's looking like a no. The Bills are 0-5 on the road but 4-1 at home, though the best team they've beaten is the Chiefs, who are only pretty good. The Panthers are only pretty good too, but I think they'll avoid the upset.
BALTIMORE (3-7) at Cincinnati (7-3): The Ravens got a nice win over the Steelers last week, and by nice I mean so boring it ripped the very fabric of time and space. The Bengals scored 27 points in the first half last week and went into the locker room losing by eight. If they score 27 in the first half of this game, they can throw their helmets on the field for the second half and still win -- by two touchdowns.
Thus, this is the What the Heck Pick of the week.
JACKSONVILLE (7-3) at Arizona (3-7): The only other WTH candidate, but I think the Cardinals actually have a chance to win just because the Jaguars are always capable of losing when you least expect it.
Miami (3-7) at OAKLAND (4-6): One week I say the Raiders are looking pretty good and they lose. The next week I say they tend to play just well enough to lose and they play just well enough to win. I give up. I'm picking them, and shutting up about it.
N.Y. GIANTS (7-3) at Seattle (8-2): Was that near-disaster fourth-quarter collapse against the 49ers a preview of the Seahawks' habitual second-half swan dive? Maybe so. Seattle has built its record against some pretty weak competition. Then again, so have the Giants. Most winning teams do.
The big questions for the Giants are whether they can win away from Giants Stadium, where they've gone 6-1, and whether they can stop Shaun Alexander and, having done that, the Seattle passing game. I think so and I think so and I'm not so sure. So this is a shaky pick.
GREEN BAY (2-8) at Philadelphia (4-6): How 'bout those Flyers?
NEW ORLEANS (2-8) at N.Y. Jets (2-8): Turn off the TV. Enjoy the end of the holiday weekend. Is there any leftover turkey? Nothing to see here.
PITTSBURGH (7-3) at Indianapolis (10-0): This has all the earmarks of an upset. The Steelers are coming off a dismal loss to the Ravens and coach Bill Cowher is talking like the coach of Pivnick Tech before the USC game: If we can just slow them down and keep it close, you never know. They'll be snorting fire. The Colts beat back a stiff challenge on the road from the Cincinnati Bengals last week. Letdown city.
Ben Roethlisberger is expected back at quarterback for the Steelers after missing three more games with a knee injury, making it four of the last six. He figures to be a lot better than Charlie Batch or Tommy Maddox, but rusty. Then again, every time you underestimate Roethlisberger, he beats you. Meanwhile, ABC will be positively fawning over Peyton Manning and the high-powered, undefeated Colts offense. Such a hyped unit just has to stumble deliciously in that kind of spotlight. That always happens.
Every instinct I have tells me the Steelers will win this game. Except the one that's saying, "Every instinct you've had for the last two weeks has been wrong, muttonhead." That's the one that's talking loudest and making the most sense. Therefore, I'm ignoring it.
Season record: 101-59
Last week: 8-8
What the Heck Picks: 4-6
Of the 12 Thanksgiving Day games this century, including this year, number that pitted two winning teams against each other: 2
Previous column: The brawl, one year later
- - - - - - - - - - - -