Romilly Evans previews a three-match Thanksgiving card, where he expects Detroit to get their play-off push back on track...
"Tony Romo's Cowboys should have little to fear from an Oakland outfit still smarting from a narrow defeat (23-19 to Tennessee) and more bumps and bruises from the short week (key injuries at QB, RB and WR have already scuppered a promising offense)."
Thanksgiving engenders contrasting feelings on this side of the pond. While Americans raise a glass to their founding fathers and pass the turkey, Brits drown their sorrows and mourn the loss of the colonies. But it's reassuring to know that at least we NFL fans can join in the thronging masses with a bumper, three-game Thanksgiving special. The festivities, as ever, begin in Motor City...
Green Bay Packers @ Detroit Lions
Kick-off 17:30, Sky Sports 1
Well, Aaron Rodgers finally made limited practice yesterday, but coach Mike McCarthy quickly dampened hopes of a Thursday return by categorising his chances as "slim to none." Which means this festive opener is all set up for the Detroit Lions, as Green Bay will once again be without their talismanic quarterback to lead the line (Rodgers fractured his collarbone in Week Nine).
The trouble for Detroit fans, of course, is that the Lions appear intent on blowing the NFC North, failing to capitalise when both their two main rivals have been without their respective rudders under center for weeks - Rodgers at the Pack, Jay Cutler (ankle) at the Chicago Bears. The big cats could've taken a stranglehold on the division, but instead they've kept their opponents in the hunt for the postseason places.
Last Sunday's defeat to those masters of mediocrity in Tampa Bay proved an eloquent example of where the Lions are going wrong. In a word, turnovers. Matt Stafford, supposedly of elite status, started the rot with four picks before a series of freak plays, which included the dreaded teammate-instigated fumble, put them deeper into deficit.
Nevertheless, they still looked likely to snatch a match-winning touchdown when stud receiver, Calvin Johnson, gathered a catch near the Tampa goalline as time wound down. However, for some reason, Megatron then completed the comedy of errors by spilling the ball in an unnecessary attempt to finish of the play with a TD.
It's highly tempting to chalk this series of mishaps up as a curiosity shop - a perfect storm of oddities which won't be repeated. Oh, go on then, I will. Johnson has been in fine form this term and won't make that mistake again (plus he won't have a corner of Darelle Revis' calibre to contend with in the Packers' D), while Stafford is still learning and remains a quarterback of towering talents.
Green Bay, on the other hand, are now down to their fourth-choice QB in Matt Flynn. True, Flynn performed with credit last week, hauling the Pack back in the fourth quarter to nick a rare tie with Minnesota (a point which could prove crucial come the end-of-year standings if Rodgers returns next week). The veteran completed 21 of 36 passes for a touchdown and 218 yards, even successfully scrambling for a further 24. But the harsh reality is Flynn is limited and unfamiliar with McCarthy's schemes.
Green Bay's middle-of-the-road defense (conceding over 350 per match) is also there for the taking. So happy holidays in Detroit is a confident prediction.
Back Detroit Lions (-6.5) to win on the Match Points Spread @ 2.01/1 or better
Back Detroit Lions (-3.5) to win on the First Half Points Spread @ 2.01/1 or better
Back C.Johnson to score First Touchdown @ 7.0 or better
Oakland Raiders @ Dallas Cowboys
Kick-off 21:30, Sky Sports 1
If the Lions have been caught napping of late, Tony Romo's Dallas Cowboys are making a career of falling asleep at the wheel. Despite being housed in a the declining NFC East, the Boys have struggled to assert their dominance over three divisional opponents whose prospects have been derailed through injury (New York's offense), regime chance (Philadelphia's alterations at coach and QB) or falling idols (Robert Griffin in Washington).
Dallas even blew a 15-point lead in the second half against the Giants on Sunday, before Romo rallied his troops to set up a game-winning field goal as time expired. A collective sigh of relief was breathed and the Cowboys finally reclaimed top spot in the East.
While their Jekyll-and-Hyde nature make Dallas difficult to trust, the truth is that Romo has looked more of a bankable commodity this year - especially at home where the Cowboys are 4-1 (only losing narrowly to the irrepressible Broncos of Denver). His lengthy drive in New York was Romo's second winning surge to arrive at the eleventh hour in recent weeks (also see his 90 yards for a climactic touchdown against Minnesota), so long-standing accusations that he's a choker appear to be skating on thin ice these days.
In any case, the 33-year-old should have little to fear from an Oakland outfit still smarting from a narrow defeat (23-19 to Tennessee) and some telling bumps and bruises from the short week (key injuries at QB, RB and WR have already scuppered a promising offense). Romo's boys, however, will have no trouble working the scoreboard (averaging 34.6 points at Cowboys Stadium so far this year) and his favourite pathfinders to Dez Bryant and a revitalized Jason Witten (two TDs in the Big Apple) should keep those big numbers rolling.
Back Dallas Cowboys (-8.5) to win on the Match Points Spread @ 2.01/1 or better
Back Dallas Cowboys (-2.5) to win on the First Half Points Spread @ 2.01/1 or better
Back Over 32.5 Total Dallas Points @ 1.824/5 or better
Back J.Witten to score First Touchdown @ 7.0 or better
Pittsburgh Steelers @ Baltimore Ravens
Kick-off 01:30, Sky Sports 1
Just when it looked like the Pittsburgh Steelers were tumbling towards rock bottom, their fall got snagged on a ledge from which they could climb back up towards the light of redemption. Or so the residents of Steeler Nation will be telling themselves, after three consecutive wins against the odds have put them at 5-6, having started 0-4.
Their intimidating defense is back in the groove (five more sacks against the Cleveland Browns), while Ben Roethlisberger is also keeping better stride with his offense, winning the fans over with big plays to Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders.
The Steelers' hosts for this late game, the Baltimore Ravens, also stand at 5-6 and have a similar tale of unexpected contention to tell. Having lost four of their previous five games, the Ravens bounced back against the NY Jets last week in a 19-3 shutdown. Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco hooked up with Jacoby James for a defining TD, but is was the defense which proved the star of the show - forcing three turnovers and limiting 220 yards.
However, let's not get ahead of ourselves. Baltimore were playing the Jets (a team which routinely drop their food at perfectly laid tables) and their D is not the force of old, with Ray Lewis and Ed Reed pursuing other avenues. A rejuvenated Roethlisberger and his big-game-winning mentality presents another level in terms of challenge. The Steelers have outscored their adversaries 87-48 over the last three games, so the two-time Super Bowl ring-bearer is once again hitting his marks when it matters most.
So poor are the tier-two teams in this Conference that this encounter could prove the divisional decider for a wildcard spots in the AFC North. And when the play-offs come calling, Big Ben usually times it right. But play the Steelers with a generous 3.5-point headstart just for safety.
Back Pittsburgh Steelers to win on the Match Points Spread (+3.5) @ 1.728/11 or better
Back Pittsburgh Steelers (+1.5) to win on the First Half Points Spread @ 1.824/5 or better
Back Over 17.5 Total Pittsburgh Points @ 1.824/5 or better