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NFL: Thanksgiving Football Extravaganza

football

Happy Thanksgiving! This week’s NFL preview comes to you a couple of days early, because week thirteen features the traditional Thanksgiving Football Extravaganza! Three huge NFC contests take place on Thursday, with two of them early enough to watch live in Irish time. This is one of the most tightly contested NFL seasons, both in terms of teams chasing divisional crowns and wild card spots. It seems certain that a few teams with good winning records will miss the post-season, making these final few encounters all the more vital. Let’s look ahead to the action.

Seattle Seahawks at San Francisco Forty-Niners

It is pretty difficult to overstate the importance of this game for these two NFC West powerhouses. Both are two wins behind the Arizona Cardinals in the division, but crucially the Seattle Seahawks now have a tiebreaking lead over the Cardinals, whereas the San Francisco Forty-Niners are behind them in a tiebreak situation. That makes this a must win game for the Niners if they are to play football in January. The last four of these rivals clashes have been won by the home team, but right now San Francisco’s chaotic offense seems incapable of winning a game like this. The Niners have scored an average of 16.6 points in their last five games, which is scaring no one. The only receiver consistently playing well is Anquan Boldin, with Vernon Davis in particular looking lost. There are worries about Frank Gore’s age, and the Niners are turning the ball over a lot. Still, their pass rushing situation is now one of the best in the league. They will need to get to Russell Wilson a lot.

The panic in Seattle seems stemmed after their dominant win against the Arizona Cardinals, but that could all change after a loss here. They were successful against Arizona because they dominated up front and won the territory battle. The San Francisco offensive line has not been as solid as previous years, so they have a chance to win up front again. Marshawn Lynch may see the offense put on his back, as there still appears to be a disconnect between Wilson and his receivers. Still, Seattle look ready to make a big move towards January football.

Verdict: Seattle

Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys

The joint-leaders of the NFC East meet here, in a fascinating clash of offensive styles. Chip Kelly’s Philadelphia Eagles and their up-tempo offense are, in a way, the ideal unit to take on the Dallas Cowboys’ run first clock control game plan. With the Eagles only needing twenty minutes with the ball to put up five or six touchdowns, it’s possible this is the biggest challenge of the season for the Cowboys. The Eagles rank sixteenth in run defense, but you can bet it will be all hands to the pumps to put down DeMarco Murray. For the Eagles, the plan must be to stop the run early, prevent Dez Bryant from making big plays, as he has nearly twice as many receiving yards as any other Cowboy, and put up some early touchdowns and take the run away. Doing that with Mark Sanchez, who coughs up roughly one turnover to every touchdown, may not be easy. But the Eagles are loaded with receivers, and they may finally show up this Cowboys defense.

Conversely, for the Dallas Cowboys to win, they really have to milk the clock to minimize the Eagles offensive drives. DeMarco Murray’s staggering 5.1 yards per attempt over 268 attempts bodes well, and the play action may be quite effective here. Tony Romo had all day to throw against the New York Giants, but the Eagles pass rush has a bit more bite, and the defense is very opportunistic, so he will have to be careful when he takes shots. We will find out about the playoff-readiness of this Cowboys defense on Thursday.

Verdict: Philadelphia

New England Patriots at Green Bay Packers

Sunday’s games are not without spark, themselves. No game better illustrates this than the clash of arguably the form teams of the AFC and the NFC. Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers have been simply mesmerizing at Lambeau Field again this season, and the quarterback is the leading candidate for the MVP award at this point, having thrown thirty touchdown passes to just three interceptions. He has largely managed these staggering feats with just two receivers, but Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb have been magnificent so far this year, combining for nineteen touchdowns. Eddie Lacy is a strong running back who can be used when necessary, and that diversity will be needed here. The Packers defense has also improved week on week, but they may face a few challenging match up issues here.

The New England Patriots have been simply awesome during their seven week winning streak. Bill Belichick has been able to identify his opponents weaknesses, and the vast array of different subtle weapons he has at his disposal has seen them stroll to the top of the AFC rankings. He has confounded top tier quarterbacks left, right and centre, and coming to Lambeau he will know he needs a hell of a game plan. The old master can rotate his weapons to devastating effect, and he has a knack for shutting down opponents biggest playmakers. This is sure to be a mouthwatering clash. The Patriots should be able to make hay against the 30th ranked run defense, which sways it.

Verdict:  New England

Denver Broncos at Kansas City Chiefs

Another clash at the divisional summit, as the Kansas City Chiefs host the Denver Broncos. The Chiefs have done remarkably well to push themselves into divisional contention, before faceplanting to give the Oakland Raiders their first win of the season. Alex Smith has been playing good football. There is no denying that. But he has no real wide outs to throw to. Jamaal Charles and Knile Davis have been terrific, offering the Chiefs a dual threat both in the backfield and lined out across the formation. The defense has played hard, but Eric Berry’s incredibly unfortunate absence may prove a bridge too far in this one.

The Denver Broncos survived everything the Miami Dolphins could throw at them last weekend, eventually emerging 39-36 victors. It was a huge win for Denver, who have struggled with injuries and lost two of their last three before last weekend. C.J. Anderson had a wild day running the ball, and if he can manage half those yards again, the Broncos are set up for victory. Questions remain over their offensive line and defense,  but it remains to be seen if Kansas City can expose them.

Verdict: Denver

San Diego Chargers at Baltimore Ravens

This sleeper game is a fascinating AFC battle, with both teams boasting a 7-4 record and stuck in a competitive division. The Baltimore Ravens have been quietly putting together a very nice season, despite all the Ray Rice drama early on. Joe Flacco has been patchy at times, but he has proven his ability to play clutch football down the stretch before. The Smiths are a fascinating wide out pair, and they always carry a threat. Justin Forsett has emerged as a star on this team, offering a running game that has been marked absent in Baltimore since the Superbowl win. The secondary is hurting though, with trouble at cornerback since Jimmy Smith went down. Still, Terrell Suggs and Elvis Dumervil are plenty capable of hunting a quarterback and saving their secondary.

The San Diego Chargers appear to have emerged from their mid-season slump in recent weeks, re-establishing themselves as playoff contenders with wins over the Oakland Raiders and St Louis Rams. Those teams both have losing records, but they have also put down some of the Chargers rivals in recent weeks. Philip Rivers is, by all accounts, playing hurt. Consequently, he is not playing at the supreme level he managed in the first six weeks. He has a great depth of receivers to work with, but not much in the way of a run game. The defense has also struggled badly since losing a few bodies to injuries, with the secondary particularly badly struck. Time is fast running out for the Chargers if they are to repeat their playoff push from last year. They were electric down the stretch then, and if Rivers can’t find receivers against these corners, the Chargers will be in trouble.

Verdict: Baltimore

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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