Thanksgiving Day NFL preview
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New England Patriots at Detroit Lions
Lions rookie defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh presents an interesting series of challenges to enemy offenses - through the first 10 weeks of the season, he was involved in far more pass plays (16) than any other tackle. This didn't preclude him from playing the run well, though - of the 18 run plays sent in his direction, 16 were Successes, and six were Defeats. On a per-play basis, no tackle has been more effective at stopping key short-yardage conversions, disallowing above-average conversion yardage, and causing negative plays.
However, Suh's team hasn't been on the right side of the luck curve all season - despite their 2-8 record, the Lions have a minus-3 point differential. That's better than the point differential of four teams (the Miami Dolphins, Seattle Seahawks, Jacksonville Jaguars, and Washington Redskins) with records of .500 or better. Detroit's Estimated Wins total of 4.2 (Estimated Wins pits the most important efficiency factors against a league-average schedule) is higher than that of the 7-3 Chicago Bears, who currently lead Detroit's division.
If you want proof of just how much New England's offense has changed this season, consider that the Pats are running over 60 percent of their offensive snaps with two tight ends this season. That's way up from 2009, when New England had two tight ends on the field 34 percent of the time. No surprise that receiver Wes Welker leads the team in targets with 82, but rookie tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski have combined for 76, and both players rank among the top 10 in DYAR at their positions. Where New England struggles to measure up is in overall defense, and that's what makes this an interesting matchup. The Pats currently rank 26th in Defensive DVOA against the pass and the run, and 27th against No. 1 receivers. Could be a big day for Detroit's Calvin Johnson.
New Orleans Saints at Dallas Cowboys
Saints cornerback Jabari Greer has been one of the NFL's more underrated at his position, but Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck had his way with Greer last Sunday. According to Football Outsiders compadre Bill Barnwell, Hasselbeck was 11 of 15 for 194 yards to the right side of the field where Greer plays, and 21 of 29 for 172 yards everywhere else. Cowboys backup quarterback Jon Kitna has posted his highest quarterback rating (99.9) on passes to the right side, where he's 23 of 36 for 325 yards and two touchdowns. The Saints' offense is starting to get back on track even without Reggie Bush, but the passing game is still a decidedly dink-and-dunk affair - Drew Brees is tied for the second-worst Average Pass Length in the league at 6.87,
The other quarterback with a 6.87 Average Pass Length is Kitna, and the Cowboys are getting more yardage per play out of yards after catch (6.81) than "air yards" on completed passes (5.42). Miles Austin leads Dallas' receivers in YAC with 306, while running back Felix Jones ranks fifth overall with 354. The Saints are solid against No. 2 receivers and running backs, but there's no question that Dallas' offense is more effective and integrated since Jason Garrett took over for Wade Phillips. A Saints defense that suddenly looks a bit vulnerable had best beware; this is where an upset could reside.
Cincinnati Bengals at New York Jets
Buffalo Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick in the first half of last Sunday's game against the Bengals: 11 of 21 for 177 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. Fitzpatrick in the second half: 10 of 13 for 139 yards, three touchdowns and no picks. The difference? The ankle injury suffered by Bengals cornerback Johnathan Joseph in the first half. If Joseph can't go, Mark Sanchez has a major advantage in that he'll miss one of the game's better cover corners. The Bengals are second in the league in DVOA against No. 1 receivers (only the Eagles are better), and that's on Joseph.
The Jets have won three straight games in late and close situations, and that's on Sanchez; at least it was when he made some great throws against the (admittedly horrible) Houston Texans defense. He's not a great fourth-quarter quarterback (44 of 92 for 534 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions), but he's been pure dynamite in overtime this season - 11.27 Yards per Attempt and a 99.0 passer rating. That doesn't set up well for the Bengals, who have the third-worst defensive DVOA in late and close situations.