It is an unusually bountiful Thanksgiving for NFL fans.
Four of the six teams involved in the day’s three-game football feast have at least a share of first place in their divisions. In two of the three games, both participants have records of 7-3 or better. The Green Bay Packers play at Detroit in the early-afternoon game while their closest pursuer for NFC supremacy, the San Francisco 49ers, are in Baltimore for the nighttime matchup that features the NFL’s first meeting of brothers as opposing head coaches.
“It’s going to be a great night for football,” Ravens Coach John Harbaugh said this week. “If you’re a football fan, I wouldn’t think you’d want to miss this game.”
The same could be said of the Packers-Lions meeting, and even the late-afternoon game in which the Miami Dolphins play at Dallas has some intrigue. The Cowboys have won three straight games to tie the New York Giants for first place in the NFC East. The Dolphins have become the first NFL team to follow an 0-7 start with three victories in a row.
The Packers, meanwhile, are the first undefeated team to play on Thanksgiving since the 1962 Packers. That Green Bay team lost at Detroit on Thanksgiving on its way to going 13-1 in the regular season and beating the Giants in the NFL championship game.
“I think it’s an honor to play on Thanksgiving Day,” Packers Coach Mike McCarthy said this week. “I know as a kid growing up, the NFL on Thanksgiving was always part of your day as a family. This is, I think, the fifth time in my coaching career that I’ve been part of Thanksgiving football. It’s unique. It’s a nationally televised game. . . . I think it’s special that they pick us to play over there in Detroit.”
The Packers have followed their Super Bowl triumph in February with a 10-0 beginning to this season. Aaron Rodgers could be en route to one of the best seasons ever by an NFL quarterback, and the scrutiny soon could intensify about the Packers’ prospects to join the 2007 New England Patriots as the only teams to go 16-0 in the regular season— and then potentially surpass those Patriots by becoming the first team ever to go 19-0 in a season. The next two games could be telling, with the Packers facing the Lions on Thursday and then playing the Giants at Metlife Stadium on Dec. 4.
McCarthy said he would take it relatively easy on his players in practices this week as they tried to recover from Sunday’s victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, focusing on classroom work instead.
“It’s obviously a bit of an advantage for the home team,” McCarthy said of the short preparation period to play on Thanksgiving. “But it’s only an hour flight. I don’t mind the schedule. . . . I think players like to turn around and play right away too. I’ve never felt stressed preparing for this game. I think it’s a lot of fun.”
It is the 20th Thanksgiving meeting between the Packers and Lions, the most games between any two opponents on the holiday. The Packers will be playing a Thanksgiving game in Detroit for the third time in five years.
The Lions have lost three of five games since a 5-0 start to the season. But with quarterback Matthew Stafford and wide receiver Calvin Johnson, they have the sort of offense that potentially could take advantage of a Green Bay defense that ranks 31st in the league against the pass and 30th overall (based on yards allowed).
There could come a point at which McCarthy will have to make a decision about whether he wants to chase an unbeaten record, if the Packers end up playing some games without playoff implications at the end of the regular season. But for now, they have the 49ers right on their heels in the race for home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. The 49ers are 9-1 under Jim Harbaugh, their first-year coach, after going 6-10 last season.
Jim Harbaugh has made things work with quarterback Alex Smith, the former top overall selection in the NFL draft. Smith has 13 touchdown passes while throwing only four interceptions this season. He is the league’s seventh-rated passer, and he will work against a Baltimore defense that could be without linebacker Ray Lewis, whose string of 57 consecutive starts ended when he sat out Sunday’s victory over the Cincinnati Bengals because of a toe injury.
The Ravens, at 7-3, are tied with the Pittsburgh Steelers atop the AFC North. They have stumbled against some of the less-imposing opponents on their schedule, with all three of their losses to teams now at .500 or below — Tennessee, Jacksonville and Seattle. But they’ve played well against the better teams, going 3-0 against the Steelers and Bengals in games within their division and also beating the Houston Texans.
“It’s going to be a hard-fought game,” John Harbaugh said. “I don’t think it’s going to be a trick-’em game. . . . It’s a short week. It’s two physical teams. It’s two teams with quite a lot at stake.”