Watching NFL games on Thanksgiving is always special, but this year we are going to witness something we haven’t seen in 81 years: The three games on Thursday will mark the first time since 1935 where all teams involved have a record of .500 or better.
And all three games will have serious playoff implications. According to the New York Times NFL playoff forecaster, the Minnesota Vikings will see their playoff chances soar to 82 percent with a win over the Detroit Lions. But that drops to 41 percent with a loss, making it the game with the most playoff leverage for the week.
The key for the Vikings will be containing quarterback Matt Stafford. Stafford completed close to 68 percent of his passes for 2,651 yards and an 18-to-five touchdown-to-interception ratio, making him the seventh-best passer in the NFL this season according to ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating. The game charters at Pro Football Focus agree, ranking Stafford ninth of 29 qualified quarterbacks.
Minnesota’s defense should be up to the task. Its pass rush is ranked fifth overall per Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Value Over Average and their defensive line has an above-average sack rate after adjusting for down, distance and opponent (7.2 percent compared with the league average of 6.1 percent). Led by defensive end Danielle Hunter, who has three sacks in the past two games and seven sacks total this season, Minnesota’s defensive front should get more pressure on Stafford than they did in Week 9 — the Vikings pressured Detroit on just 11 of 37 drop backs in that game.
The Washington Redskins could also make a playoff push of their own with a win over their NFC East rival, the Dallas Cowboys. If the NFL season ended today, Washington would be the sixth seed, but their hold on a playoff berth is tenuous. Their current playoff odds are at 56 percent, which increase to 76 percent with a victory and drop to 46 percent chance with a defeat.
The Redskins have one objective: stop a Dallas offense that is leading the league in plays (7.6) and points (2.9) per drive with a defense that ranks 30th and 25th, respectively, in those same metrics.
To make things more difficult, Washington has to do it on a quick turnaround, having played the Green Bay Packers in prime time on Sunday night.
The soft spot in the Redskins’ defense lies in its inability to stop the run once an opposing rusher gets past the line of scrimmage. The Redskins allow the third-highest second-level yards per carry (1.44 yards earned per attempt between 5 and 10 yards past the line of scrimmage) and rank 16th for open-field yards (0.75 of a yard earned per attempt more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage).
Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, meanwhile, averages 2.81 yards per carry after contact.
Ezekiel Elliott: "DBs, they really don't want to tackle me." pic.twitter.com/ahe5iSQHjF
— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) November 21, 2016
The Pittsburgh Steelers, winners over the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, can keep their playoff hopes alive with a victory over the Indianapolis Colts. A win on Thursday night moves their chances to 61 percent, but a loss will reduce them to a concerning 38 percent.
Things got a little easier for the Steelers after Colts Coach Chuck Pagano announced on Monday that his starting quarterback, Andrew Luck, is in the NFL’s concussion protocol.
Before Luck’s injury, the star quarterback was completing 63 percent of his passes for 2,827 yards, 19 touchdowns and eight interceptions, ranking him No. 8 in QBR this season. Instead, backup Scott Tolzien will likely lead the Colts Thursday night.
Tolzien has completed 56 of 91 passes with one touchdown and five interceptions during his career, which began as an undrafted free agent following the 2011 NFL draft. He started two games for the Green Bay Packers in 2013 and was pressured on 27 of his 98 drop backs in those games. His passer rating went from 74.5 to 41.3 plays under pressure.
Look for Pittsburgh to keep the pressure on all game long.