This article has been updated to reflect the postponement of the Ravens-Steelers game after at least 10 Ravens players and multiple staff members tested positive for coronavirus this week.
Thanksgiving is here, and so is the stretch run of the NFL season. The bye weeks are almost over, the playoff race is beginning to take shape, and a few coaches are on the verge of getting fired. Sunday afternoon’s slate is headlined by a mega-matchup between Patrick Mahomes’s Chiefs and Tom Brady’s Buccaneers, but the Thanksgiving games have already been disrupted. The Steelers-Ravens matchup scheduled for prime time on Thursday has been postponed until Sunday after at least 10 Ravens players plus multiple staffers tested positive for coronavirus this week. That leaves two games on Thursday, because no matter what happens in 2020, we will never rid ourselves of the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving.
Houston Texans (3-7) @ Detroit Lions (4-6)
Time: 12:30 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Lions -2
Shot: Watching Matt Patricia’s defense
Chaser: Deshaun Watson playing Matt Patricia’s defense
This Thanksgiving, we might be watching Matt Patricia’s last game as Lions head coach. Detroit reached a new low under Patricia last week, getting shut out by a Carolina defense that had forced just two punts in their previous four games combined. Matthew Stafford’s offense put up zero points for the first time in his career, while Panthers backup quarterback (and former XFL starter) P.J. Walker looked like a Pro Bowler. That loss might have been enough to get Patricia fired, if not for the short week making it too difficult to change coaching staffs. But if Detroit puts up another embarrassing showing on national TV against a team with an interim coach, don’t expect Patricia to be long for this team.
A Houston win might offer the Lions a glimpse at a post-Patricia future. Since the Texans fired head coach Bill O’Brien in Week 4, Deshaun Watson leads all quarterbacks in passer rating. As if keeping up with a resurgent Watson won’t be hard enough, the Lions could be shorthanded this week. Running back D’Andre Swift is in concussion protocol, and no. 1 receiver Kenny Golladay missed the last few weeks with a hip injury. But if one bad loss ends the Patricia era, then Lions fans will have something rare—a reason to celebrate on Thanksgiving.
Washington Football Team (3-7) @ Dallas Cowboys (3-7)
Time: 4:30 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Cowboys -1
On Thanksgiving morning of 2018, Alex Smith underwent surgery to save his right leg. On Thanksgiving afternoon of 2020, Smith will start for the Washington Football Team. It’s a remarkable anniversary that warrants a celebration, especially because something about this game needs to be enjoyable.
We are always force-fed the Cowboys on Thanksgiving, but this year, we might be left with a worse taste than usual. Every team in the NFC East has three wins. Eight of those 12 total wins have come against other NFC East teams, meaning the division as a whole is 4-19-1 against non-divisional opponents. Yet the Cowboys seem ready to smash teams—literally.
Last Saturday, before Dallas’s game against the Vikings, Mike McCarthy addressed his team in a hotel ballroom. Here’s what NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero reports happened:
“Mike McCarthy gets up and says, ‘Guys, I want to apologize. I don’t think I did a good enough job emphasizing our objectives for the week.’ One of which was to hammer the ball out of [Vikings running back] Dalvin Cook’s hands.” At that point McCarthy pulls out a sledgehammer—not a prop—a full sledgehammer you could knock a wall down with, and someone rolls in a bunch of watermelons. Each one has a different objective written on it. McCarthy reads the objective—BAM!—smashes the watermelon. He goes down the row doing this. The players are roaring. McCarthy’s pants are soaked. He finally gets to the watermelon with Dalvin Cook’s picture on it. DeMarcus Lawrence jumps up and goes, ‘I’ve got to get that one.’ He hands the sledgehammer to Lawrence, he smashes that watermelon.
Either this watermelon incident sparked a Cowboys winning streak, or Washington will get a win on Thanksgiving. Regardless, one of these teams will take at least a temporary lead in the NFC East this week, and the other will stay on pace for a top five draft pick.
Baltimore Ravens (6-4) @ Pittsburgh Steelers (10-0)
Time: TBD Sunday
Opening point spread: N/A
This was set to be the best Thanksgiving game since the Seattle Seahawks played the San Francisco 49ers in 2014, a rematch of the Richard Sherman–Michael Crabtree NFC championship game earlier that year. Now it will be played at some point on Sunday after at least 10 Ravens players and multiple staff members tested positive for coronavirus this week. This is the second time the Steelers have had their schedule disrupted by COVID. Earlier this year, Pittsburgh’s game against Tennessee was rescheduled, forcing the Steelers to take their bye in Week 4. The Steelers were not happy about that, and don’t seem happy about this change either.
First the NFL takes away our bye week because another team can’t get their Covid situation together, now they take away our Thanksgiving primetime game for the same reason. Smh.— JuJu Smith-Schuster (@TeamJuJu) November 25, 2020
Steelers-Ravens is the premier rivalry in the NFL right now, but this game lost some luster before the rescheduling. The Ravens are reeling after Derrick Henry’s walk-off touchdown dropped them to 6-4 on the year and third place in the AFC North behind the Steelers and the Cleveland Browns (!).
Derrick Henry literally handed the Ravens an L pic.twitter.com/r7Sjrv7Yx7— Seth Walder (@SethWalder) November 22, 2020
Entering this game, the Ravens are not in position to make the playoffs. That is quite the drop-off after Baltimore was no. 1 seed in the AFC last year. Baltimore is dealing with injuries to both lines, inert play-calling from coaches, and ineffectiveness from Lamar Jackson and his wide receivers.
If the Ravens lose on Sunday, they’ll be eliminated from the division race. They’ll also be in fourth place in a wild-card-version of musical chairs that has only three seats. Baltimore is competing with the Raiders, Browns, Dolphins, and Colts/Titans for those spots. Fortunately for the Ravens, their schedule is easy enough that this Steelers game is not do-or-die. Baltimore’s final five games are all winnable: vs. the Cowboys, at the Browns, vs. the Jaguars, vs. the Giants, and at the Bengals. So not only would a Baltimore win give this team the pleasure of spoiling Pittsburgh’s undefeated record, but it would propel them into the easiest stretch of their season.
Meanwhile, if Pittsburgh beats Baltimore to go 11-0, it will be hard not to think about going undefeated—even if this team has nearly blown a half-dozen games this year. Their final five games are against Washington, at Buffalo, at Cincinnati, against Indianapolis, and at Cleveland. If they win on Sunday, each of those games gets a lot more interesting.
Sunday Early Slate
New York Giants (3-7) @ Cincinnati Bengals (2-7-1)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Bengals -3 (now Giants -5.5)
Over/under: 44 (now 42.5)
Bengals rookie Joe Burrow tore his ACL and MCL last week, ending his 2020 season and putting his ability to return for Week 1 of the 2021 season in jeopardy. Fair or not, many fans immediately blamed the Bengals for not giving Burrow a better offensive line. The Athletic’s Mo Egger compared Cincinnati not investing in its offensive line to the city of Cincinnati not investing in a local bridge that was declared “functionally obsolete” two decades ago: a preventable disaster waiting to happen. Some sports injuries lead to existential crises. Burrow’s injury is emblematic of local systemic decay.
The Giants, on the other hand, are just 3-7 but firmly in the playoff race, and now they get to feast on the Bengals in their first game with Brandon Allen at quarterback. This would be New York’s first non-divisional win of the year. Life finds a way.
Las Vegas Raiders (6-4) @ Atlanta Falcons (3-7)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Pick Em (now Raiders -3)
Fine, Derek Carr is good. Are you happy Raiders fans? Carr supplanted Andy Dalton as the league’s most boring beacon of competence during the past couple of seasons, but on Sunday Night Football, he played on par with Patrick Mahomes. Las Vegas lost the game 35-31, but the Raiders won a lot of respect. It was the best showing in the best season of Derek Carr’s career. He is on pace for career highs in passer rating, ESPN’s total quarterback rating, and adjusted net yards per throw. Meanwhile, the Falcons are allowing the most yards per play (6.4) and third-most net yards per pass (7.7) this season.
Los Angeles Chargers (3-7) @ Buffalo Bills (7-3)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Buffalo -6
This is the goober bowl. Coming into their respective drafts, Bills quarterback Josh Allen and Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert were both top-tier physical prospects who many thought would suck in the NFL. Instead, they’ve proved themselves to be franchise quarterbacks this season. Herbert had three ridiculous passes last week—two fastball touchdowns to Keenan Allen and tight end Hunter Henry, plus a deep pass to Tyron Johnson that went almost 60 yards in the air.
Nearly 60 yard throw from Herbert and the arc is so low the ball doesn’t even leave the screen pic.twitter.com/SfCkrZfwIv— Nate Tice (@Nate_Tice) November 22, 2020
Sunday’s game pits two of the most exciting players in the sport against each other. And while the Chargers are not in the playoff race, a Bills win would keep Buffalo in position for their first AFC East title in 25 years.
Tennessee Titans (7-3) @ Indianapolis Colts (7-3)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Colts -4.5
Over/under: Titans 49
Same division, same record, different goals. The Titans want to dominate their opponents on offense with human battering ram Derrick Henry, then build play-action passes over the top. The Colts want to shut Henry down, and use the league’s most underratedly physical and disciplined front seven—with DeForest Buckner (the best defensive tackle not named Aaron Donald) and linebacker Darius Leonard (who wants Aaron Rodgers to call him the league’s best linebacker)—to do it.
Henry vs. Buckner, Leonard and Co. is the main event for this game, but it could once again be overshadowed by special teams. When these teams met two weeks ago, the Titans shanked a punt and let another get blocked in a three-minute span late in the third quarter, allowing the Colts to turn a 17-13 deficit into a 27-17 lead. That has been the story all year for the Titans, who have the worst special teams in football outside of the Chargers.
Carolina Panthers (4-7) @ Minnesota Vikings (4-6)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Vikings -3.5
If Teddy Bridgewater is able to return from a knee injury and play in this game, he will face the team that drafted him in the first round back in 2014. Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey is less likely to play, as he’s recovering from a shoulder injury.
The wild card is Vikings receiver Adam Thielen, who has tested both positive and negative for coronavirus this week. Minnesota basically needs to win all of its final six games to make the playoffs, and Thielen missing any time would make that feat considerably harder. If he’s out this week, we will get a good look at emerging star Justin Jefferson, the Vikings rookie who has 848 receiving yards and four touchdowns in just 10 games.
Arizona Cardinals (6-4) @ New England Patriots (4-6)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Pick Em (now Cardinals -2.5)
There is a great photo from the 2017 MLB season in which José Altuve and Aaron Judge are standing next to each other.
Sunday could provide a similarly comedic image with Cam Newton and Kyler Murray. Newton stands 6-foot-5 and 244 pounds and is the most physically imposing player at the quarterback position. Murray stands 5-foot-10 and weighs 207 pounds, making him one of the smallest professional quarterbacks ever. Yet despite their size difference, they are each within striking distance of the same single-season record: rushing touchdowns by a quarterback.
Murray has 10 so far this season, second only to Vikings running back Dalvin Cook, while Newton has 9, which ties him with Derrick Henry, Todd Gurley, and Josh Jacobs for third in the NFL. The record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback in a single season is 14, set by … Cam Newton in 2011. Murray is currently on pace to break Newton’s record before Christmas, and if he does, he’ll be surpassing a giant at the position. So to speak.
Miami Dolphins (6-4) @ New York Jets (0-10)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Dolphins -7
Tua Tagovailoa was benched midway through last week’s loss against the Denver Broncos, but will be starting this game against the Jets. Backup Ryan Fitzpatrick won’t get the chance to play his former team, but Jets head coach Adam Gase will get a chance to beat the Dolphins, who he coached for three years from 2016 to 2018.
Cleveland Browns (7-3) @ Jacksonville Jaguars (1-9)
Time: 1 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Browns -6
These teams have both been awful over the last 20 years, but while the Jaguars have remained abysmal, the Browns are on the verge of climbing out of the abyss (knocks on wood). Cleveland is in second place in the AFC North. If they win this game, they will be 8-3, thus guaranteeing a .500 finish or better for just the third time since the team was reincarnated in 1999. Better yet, they would be in position to make just their second playoff appearance in the last quarter century (throws salt over left shoulder).
Sunday Late Slate
New Orleans Saints (8-2) @ Denver Broncos (4-6)
Time: 4:05 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Saints -5.5
The Taysom Hill experiment is now the new reality in New Orleans. Or at least it is until Drew Brees returns from his 11 broken ribs and punctured lung, which, well, when can you return from that? Technically he’ll be off IR in mid-December, but we may see Taysom for a long time.
While Hill played well in his debut last week, this will be his first game against a team that has film on him as a full-fledged starting quarterback. The Saints are 6-0 without Brees over the last two years and their defense has allowed one touchdown in the last three weeks, so Hill might not have to do much to get a win.
San Francisco 49ers (4-6) @ Los Angeles Rams (7-3)
Time: 4:05 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Rams -7
This would be an amazing game if the 49ers were healthy. But they aren’t, so we get Nick Mullens facing Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey.
Kansas City Chiefs (9-1) @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-4)
Time: 4:25 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Chiefs -3
Tom Brady is the Greatest Quarterback of All Time, but Patrick Mahomes is on his way there. No, it is not too early to talk about it. Mahomes is already one of the greatest athletes we have ever seen in American sports. He came up short in his first two meetings with Brady, including the post-2018 season AFC championship game that was an inflection point for the league, then won the third. The fourth will be Mahomes’s chance to even things up. And unless Brady switches conferences again, plays four more seasons, or meets the Chiefs in the Super Bowl, this will be the last time Brady and Mahomes face off in a game.
Mahomes is having the best season of his career, with 27 passing touchdowns to just two interceptions (neither of which were his fault). The Chiefs lead the league in points, offensive DVOA, and sheer confidence that they can score from anywhere on the field at any time. Kansas City is no longer just a well-oiled machine. They are software. Their speed and efficiency is effortless.
The Bucs defense, though, is the best the Chiefs have faced since the 49ers in the Super Bowl. Tampa ranks as the second-best defense in Football Outsiders’ DVOA and has top-end talent in the defensive line, linebacking corp, and secondary. But the Bucs are not as good on defense as the Chiefs are on offense, and that could be the difference. Good defense no longer beats good offense, according to Nick Saban, and this game will be a good test of that theory.
While the Chiefs offense is whole, the Buccaneers offense is a collection of parts that don’t fit together yet. Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Antonio Brown have all made big plays this season, but consistency has been lacking. Brady threw an ugly interception to lose Monday night’s game against the Rams, and his mental errors and coverage misreads have affected the team at crucial points.
Kansas City’s defense has not been intimidating recently, but this unit is led by defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, the architect of the Giants defense that rattled Brady’s 18-0 Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. Spagnuolo knows how to get under Brady’s well moisturized skin. And between the Saints holding the Buccaneers to just three points in Week 9 and the Rams’ win on Monday night, getting under Brady’s skin hasn’t looked so hard. Brady might be the Greatest of All Time, but this game will remind everyone that Patrick Mahomes is the Greatest Right Now.
Sunday Night Football
Chicago Bears (5-5) @ Green Bay Packers (7-3)
Time: 8:20 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Packers -7.5
This is the most overrated rivalry in football.
The Chicago Bears have lost 17 of their last 20 games against the Green Bay Packers.— Daniel Greenberg (@ChiSportUpdates) November 25, 2020
Aaron Rodgers tormenting the Bears is like a cat holding its paw on a mouse’s tail: cruel and unusual punishment. And that’s especially true for this matchup. Both Nick Foles and Mitchell Trubisky are injured, and it’s unclear who will start under center for the Bears. But it barely matters—Bears fans were sick of both quarterbacks when they were healthy. Chicago’s offense ranks 31st in yards per drive and in points per drive, beating only the Jets in both of those categories. Trubisky and Foles both rank in the top five in the league for throws into tight windows, which means either the Bears are the worst team in football at getting their wide receivers open, or their quarterbacks are the worst at finding open guys. Either way, the ball isn’t getting to their playmakers, so they can’t make any plays. Chicago has two passes this season of 40-plus yards, which is fewer than 30 other teams. They are even worse on the ground—their 43 rushing first downs ranks dead last in the NFL. This Packers defense is hardly impressive, but this Bears offense is hardly professional. As usual, this game will be entertaining only if Aaron Rodgers plays with his food before he eats it.
Monday Night Football
Seattle Seahawks (7-3) @ Philadelphia Eagles (3-6-1)
Time: 8:15 p.m. ET
Opening point spread: Seahawks -3
Russell Wilson started the season great, but has recently been bad. Carson Wentz started the season bad and has remained bad all year. (Maybe Wentz is having a better year—some people prefer consistency.) While Wilson leads the NFL in touchdown passes (30), Wentz leads the league in interceptions (14). If these guys have anything in common, it’s getting sacked. Wentz has been sacked 40 times in 10 games, a tidy 4.0 sacks per game, which puts him on pace for 64 sacks this season—that would be the fourth most ever. (Two of the three marks ahead of him were set by David Carr on the expansion-era Houston Texans. The third is from fellow Eagle Randall Cunningham). But while Wentz is the most-sacked QB this season, Wilson is second with 33.
Wentz and Wilson’s common ground is literally hitting the ground. But perhaps even funnier is that despite everything separating these teams, the Eagles are alone in first place in their division, and the Seahawks are not. The real stakes of this game are continuing to mock the NFC East, because if Philly beats Seattle, all those jokes will lose a little luster.