The story lines we’ll be watching closely, including whether the Lions and Giants can pull off upsets. Plus, the Packers are down to their last chance to turn their season around.
We’re in Week 12 of the NFL season, and that means Thanksgiving Day football. And the schedule-makers must have known what they were doing with Thursday’s games—five of the six teams would be in the playoffs if the season ended with this week’s games.
But there’s still plenty of football to be played over the next few weeks as teams start to separate themselves as legit Super Bowl contenders. The hottest teams in the league are the Dolphins, Ravens and Chiefs—all with four-game winning streaks. And the Patriots and 49ers seem to be finding their grooves, too, with three consecutive wins.
So to find out who’s for real and who isn’t, Albert and Conor will take you through the Thanksgiving Day, Sunday and Monday games, noting the best matchups and the story lines they’ll be watching.
GAMES OF THE WEEK
Bills (7–3) at Lions (4–6), 12:30 p.m. ET Thursday: A month ago, this looked like the kind of game you could watch out of the corner of your eye on the holiday, and maybe even turn off in the third quarter or so. But the Lions have ripped off three consecutive wins, and the Bills went through a 10-quarter stretch of sloppiness, so now this shapes up as a relatively big spot for Buffalo. One thing to watch—this is obviously a short week, and the Bills have been through a lot over the past six days, and Josh Allen’s elbow was managed a little bit this week. — Albert Breer
Giants (7–3) at Cowboys (7–3), 4:30 p.m. ET Thursday: This is the most important game for the Giants in years, although we need to look at this as reasonable adults. Their record is a testament to good, unselfish coaching. The fact that they’ve arrived here in some form of relevance and playoff contention is stunning. From here on out, the Giants have the hardest schedule in the NFL. It’s unfair to expect them to continue hanging on like this, but boy, would we like a vintage Giants-Cowboys game on Thanksgiving. That would be quite a gift. — Conor Orr
Patriots (6–4) at Vikings (8–2) , 8:20 p.m. ET Thursday: The Patriots aren’t playing the most aesthetically pleasing style, but they’ve been able to ride a rugged, physical, playmaking defense and conservative offense built to shorten games to three wins in a row after an ugly Monday night loss to Chicago. And that brings them to a two-game turn of Thursday nighters—this week in Minnesota and next week at home against Buffalo—that’ll help to define their season. As for the Vikings, not having Christian Darrisaw to deal with the Patriots’ pass rush could be a problem, but the hope would be Justin Jefferson’s a little closer to full strength than he was against Dallas. And motivation, after the Cowboys blew Minnesota’s doors off Sunday, shouldn’t be in short supply. — A.B.
Bengals (6–4) at Titans (7–3), 1 p.m. ET Sunday: This is a good opportunity for the Bengals to face real attrition: a game against one of the league’s top defenses, potentially without the services of two of their best offensive players. Samaje Perine is no slouch in the passing game, though he may have to take on a more significant role with Joe Mixon in concussion protocol. Tee Higgins has stepped up as Joe Burrow’s most dependable option, and Burrow has seemed to unscramble himself after the loss of Ja’Marr Chase. — C.O.
Rams (3–7) at Chiefs (8–2), 4:25 p.m. ET Sunday: When the schedule came out, this one was billed as the rematch of the 2018 shootout, the likes of which some people thought would impact the NFL forever. Now? Well, the Chiefs have held up their end of the bargain, bringing all the entertainment value they did four years ago, even without Tyreek Hill on the roster. But the Rams will be without Cooper Kupp, might not have Matthew Stafford, and bring an offensive line that, sans Andrew Whitworth, has been a problem all year. Which is to say they’re only hope may be for Aaron Donald, Jalen Ramsey and the defense to play their best game of the year. — A.B.
Packers (4–7) at Eagles (9–1), 8:20 p.m. ET Sunday: I know we keep saying this is Green Bay’s last chance, but this time we really mean it. What a hole they’ve dug for themselves, that their only shot at relevance is a prime-time Sunday night game against the Eagles, who are also reeling and hoping to break out of a small funk. I wonder if the Packers are hoping this is the monstrous A.J. Dillon game they’ve been waiting for this year against an Eagles’ run defense that, if we had to choose a weakness, has been one of their softer spots. — C.O.
FANTASY BOLD PREDICTION OF THE WEEK
Lamar Jackson will score 20-plus fantasy points for just the second time since Week 3. Jackson has not been an elite quarterback for most of this season (not a misprint), as he’s failed to score more than 17.5 points in all but one of his last seven games. What’s more, he’s a middle-of-the-road 15th in fantasy points among quarterbacks in that time. I like him to rebound this week though, as the Jaguars have surrendered the third-most fantasy points to quarterbacks since Week 8. Keep the faith in Jackson this weekend. —Michael Fabiano
What is your one big prediction for Week 12?
Orr: Packers upset the Eagles on Sunday Night Football. While they won’t necessarily save their season, I think where Green Bay is at and where Philadelphia is at presents some unique opportunities for Aaron Rodgers and Matt LaFleur. They have been pining for a ball-control game all season, and after watching the Commanders and Colts match the Eagles’ physicality, one could assume the Packers have a chance with their platoon of talented running backs.
Breer: I think this is the week where we see where the Bengals are at—Ja’Marr Chase is returning, Joe Burrow is playing his best ball, and the Titans, gutsy and tough as they’ve been, should provide a really nice test. I’ve said for a while that I think Burrow and his team should be held in the same regard as Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen, and their respective teams, after last year’s Super Bowl run. And I bet we see it Sunday.
Which team most needs a win in Week 12?
Orr: Packers. This is it for them. They are sitting at a 6% chance to make the playoffs and desperately need a win over another quality opponent like they logged against the Cowboys two weeks ago. If they lose, it’s a long offseason peppered with some of Rodgers’ least favorite narratives about his ability to connect with new wide receivers. It would likely also force him to be more present during offseason workouts.
Breer: The Broncos. I know you could probably have said that in any of the past few weeks. But this week, they go to Carolina, and they have the Ravens and Chiefs in Weeks 13 and 14—which is to say a loss here could mean falling to 3–10. I know Denver’s not making the playoffs, but there is a difference between winning seven or eight games and winning four or five. The former would give some merit to staying the course with the people currently in charge. Twelve or 13 losses, on the other hand, could lead to bigger change. So there’s a lot on the line.
Which coach or player is most under pressure in Week 12?
Orr: Robert Saleh. As I wrote, I don’t think he made the wrong decision benching Zach Wilson. I don’t think anyone who looks at this situation in a sober way is going to make a rash judgment based on the outcome. All that said, Saleh is a coach in New York and he just sidelined the No. 2 draft pick. We’re going to talk about it. We’re going to pay attention to it.
Breer: I’ll piggyback on Conor’s answer here and say it’s Saleh. Part of the issue the Jets coach has now is that he, and the football people in Florham Park, committed to this being a developmental year for Wilson. Then, they stole a couple of wins, got to 5–2 and expectations changed. And so the context under which the struggling Wilson is judged changes. That, and Wilson’s unfortunate postgame comments after Sunday’s 13–3 loss to the Patriots, created the fork in the road Saleh reached this week. Managing it going forward, with Wilson out and Mike White in, won’t be easy. But it’s Saleh’s job to do that, and the first piece of it will be putting White in a position to succeed, which would justify the tough call the coach had to make.
Which underdog has the best shot to win outright in Week 12?
Orr: Las Vegas. The Raiders have found their footing in time to stave off a truly embarrassing season. The Seahawks are the surprise team of the season, but they are not infallible, as we’ve seen at various points during the year. If they can find some passing rhythm early and establish Davante Adams, the Raiders are good enough to hang with anybody, even if they have not consistently done so this season.
Breer: The Bears. They’ve been able to score on everyone the past month, and I’m not sure the Jets will have enough offensively to take advantage of a scattershot defense.
Who’s your favorite to land a head-coaching gig this offseason?
Orr: Sean Payton notwithstanding, my head coaching list made clear favorites out of Eagles offensive coordinator Shane Steichen, Broncos defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero, 49ers DC DeMeco Ryans and Lions OC Ben Johnson, among others. The funny part about this year is that Jeff Saturday can put a wrench in this entire process. Does the success of someone who never held the job before empower other owners to hire their rich friends? You haven’t lived, truly, until you’ve seen Marc Anthony call an offense.
Breer: I’m tempted to answer this question the same way I would’ve at this point last year and say Dan Quinn, who’s done a fantastic job running the Cowboys’ defense. In the interest of not making the same mistake twice (Quinn deserves another shot, so we’re clear, and I do think he’ll get one), let’s go with Ryans. The success of former players such as Mike Vrabel and Kevin O’Connell, and former 49er staffmates such as Mike McDaniel and Saleh, should really help Ryans, who I’d expect will be selective in taking his shot. I also think the 49ers are catching fire at the right time, and that won’t hurt, either.
What’s your pick for the best Thanksgiving game?
Orr: Giants-Cowboys is going to be the one to watch. As I mentioned above, the Giants’ schedule puts them in a difficult spot for the remainder of the season. But there’s no way they’re not going to be emotionally prepared for this one. There are so many wonderful outcomes that accompany a Giants win, including the absolutely irreversible scrambling of the NFC playoff picture, and brewing chaos in Dallas. What’s not to love about that?
Breer: I’ll go the other way and say Patriots-Vikings—though Giants-Cowboys is the most important one because of the division implications—because I think it’ll provide a referendum for us on both teams. How does Minnesota handle going into a short week off a blowout loss? Is this where the Vikings come back to earth? And how much of the Patriots’ three-game winning streak is facing the Jets and the Sam Ehlinger–led Colts? We should have some answers by midnight on Thanksgiving.
SUNDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL BEST BET
Packers vs. Eagles: With a loss to the Commanders in Week 10 and a narrow victory over the 4-6-1 Colts, many are questioning the authenticity of the 9–1 Eagles. The Packers head into Philadelphia with losses in five of their last six games, which leaves those same people asking if the Packers are ever going to “wake up.” SI Sportsbook lists the NFC’s top team as 6.5-point favorites with an over-under of 46.5 points. Neither team has an astounding record against the spread: Packers are 4-7; Eagles are 5-5. But when taking a closer look at the Packers ATS record the past five games, they are 4-1. While I’m not blatantly calling the Eagles frauds, I am questioning their ability to cover the spread. So take the Packers and the 6.5 and by the time the game is over, you’ll be so happy about winning your bet, you’ll forget about having to head into work on Monday after a long holiday weekend.
Orr: When I got to Sports Illustrated, the place of Frank Deford and Gary Smith and S.L. Price, I was so incredibly intimidated and so immediately positive I was in over my head. I can imagine that, if the magazine world had the same immediate week-to-week pressures of the NFL, I wouldn’t be here (Mitch Golditch is as good a dresser as Anna Wintour but not nearly as mean). Maybe that’s why I have a certain sympathy for Wilson, who was benched on Wednesday. We’ll never know what day-to-day life was like in the facility or, more importantly, inside his head, but I feel like it’s important to try and understand. We all want to succeed. Sometimes it’s harder when that person is rich or handsome or famous, but that doesn’t change the fact that we want all the same things. I’m never going to be Price, Deford or Smith, just like Wilson is never going to be Joe Namath. Some of us were lucky enough to get the chance to try and fail (continuously, as I do to this day), and some of us get a much shorter window to fill big shoes. That’s not easy.
Breer: At some point, when we’re assessing young quarterbacks, all of us as a football-watching public need to start paying more attention to the circumstances around these guys—because more often than not, they’ll play a really significant role in how far a player goes. Maybe Mahomes and Allen and Lamar Jackson would’ve been great regardless. But I’d say the stability in the front office, the head coach, and the offensive structure that all of them enjoyed through their early years in the league sure didn’t hurt. And I think that’s important to take into account with what we’ve seen with the 2021 quarterbacks. Justin Fields’s circumstances improved (gaining a head coach with job security, and a singular play-caller that’d built an offense specifically for him), and so did he. Mac Jones’s circumstances got worse (losing Josh McDaniels and most of his offensive coaches from ’21), and his numbers have, too. These aren’t coincidences. And so as we break down where these guys are going, I think it’s just as important to look at where they’ve been, and who’s been there with them.
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