Cover 6: What to Watch for Sunday in a Feast of Thanksgiving Weekend Games
Indulgence is as much a part of American Thanksgiving tradition as family, reflection and, of course, football.
And for those ready to gorge on another full day of NFL action, the league has cooked up quite the menu for this Sunday.
Though Thursday’s schedule didn’t turn out to be the most compelling of days, the Las Vegas Raiders-Dallas Cowboys clash – tabbed as one of Week 12’s top five games on The Analyst’s watchability index – certainly didn’t disappoint with an overtime thriller packed with plenty of plot twists (and penalties as well).
A few more edge-of-your-seat outcomes may be in store for the weekend. Of the 11 games slated for Sunday, five feature matchups between teams currently sporting winning records. Two others (Vikings at 49ers, Chargers at Broncos) could have major playoff implications down the road and promise to provide no clarity to what’s already an incredibly jumbled postseason picture.
We’ll touch on most of those high-stakes games and offer a glimpse of what to look for while giving a more detailed breakdown of arguably this week’s biggest matchup, the Los Angeles Rams’ visit to Lambeau Field to face the NFC North-leading Green Bay Packers.
Have those antacids handy once again, as there’ll be a lot to digest during what’s shaping up as potentially the best Sunday of this season.
Pittsburgh Steelers (5-4-1) at Cincinnati Bengals (6-4), Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, CBS
Line: Bengals by 4
The Analyst Win Probability: Bengals 60%
Key Stat: Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has attempted 173 consecutive passes without an interception, the second-longest active streak in the NFL (Kirk Cousins, 195) and tied for the second-longest streak of the 18-year veteran’s career. Roethlisberger has the third-lowest pickable pass percentage (2.36) this season among quarterbacks with 200 or more pass attempts.
Key matchup: The running games
The Bengals are 4-0 this season when rushing for at least 111 yards, and Joe Mixon could be in line for another productive afternoon against a Steelers defense that’s allowing 0.361 rushing yards over expected per play, which ranks 27th in the league.
Pittsburgh, meanwhile, has been held to 62 yards or less in all four of its 2021 losses. Najee Harris couldn’t get much going against the Chargers’ woeful run defense (30th in rushing yards over expected per play) last week, and the talented rookie mustered just 40 yards on 14 carries in Pittsburgh’s 24-10 loss at Cincy in Week 3.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (7-3) at Indianapolis Colts (6-5), Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, FOX
Line: Buccaneers by 3
The Analyst Win Probability: Both teams 50%
Key Stat: Jonathan Taylor registered his league-leading sixth game of 100 or more rushing yards this season with 185 in the Colts’ 41-15 rout of Buffalo last week. Indianapolis is 9-0 in games in which Taylor eclipses the century mark since the former Wisconsin star entered the NFL in 2020.
Key matchup: Colts’ performance in the red zone
We could go with the low-hanging fruit here, as how Taylor and the Colts’ offensive line handles Tampa Bay’s stout run defense is an obvious key to the game. But if Indianapolis is to knock off the reigning Super Bowl champs and extend its winning streak to four games, it can’t be settling for field goals. As good as the Colts have been lately, they’ve scored touchdowns on only 8 of 14 red-zone trips during their three-game run. That likely won’t cut it when you’re going up against Tom Brady, who’s produced a 104.1 passer rating with 20 touchdowns and zero interceptions in the red zone this season.
The Colts’ ground game vs. the Bucs’ defense is still a fascinating matchup. Indianapolis ranks second in the NFL in rushing yards above expected per play in expected running situations. Tampa, which should get mammoth nose tackle Vita Vea back from a one-game absence, has allowed 1.117 rushing yards under expected per play in likely running situations, also the second-best mark in the league.
Los Angeles Chargers (6-4) at Denver Broncos (5-5), Sunday, 4:05 ET, CBS
Line: Chargers by 2.5
The Analyst Win Probability: Broncos 52%
Key Stat: The Broncos lead the NFL in red zone defense in home games, having allowed touchdowns on only 36.4% of opponent drives inside the defense’s 20-yard line at Empower Field at Mile High this season.
Key matchup: Justin Herbert vs. Broncos pass defense
The Broncos win when they force turnovers – usually interceptions – and generally don’t when they’re not. Denver has a combined plus-6 turnover differential in its five victories and has snared seven picks over the course of those games. In their five losses, the Broncos have just one interception and a combined minus-6 turnover differential.
Inducing mistakes out of Justin Herbert won’t be easy, as the Chargers quarterback owns the league’s lowest pickable pass percentage.
Minnesota Vikings (5-5) at San Francisco 49ers (5-5), Sunday, 4:25 ET, CBS
Line: 49ers by 3
The Analyst Win Probability: 49ers 57%
Key matchup: 49ers running game vs. Vikings run defense
In the NFC’s second-biggest game of this week (the winner will have the inside track to the second of the conference’s three wild card berths), there’s one matchup that seems to clearly favor the 49ers – and one that Kyle Shanahan will undoubtably try to exploit. San Francisco has worked its way back into the playoff race with consecutive wins in which it’s pounded both the Rams and Jaguars into submission with a relentless ground attack. The Niners have run the ball on about two-thirds of their offensive plays during the streak, resulting in lopsided time of possession advantages in both games as the offense has successfully sustained drives.
That trend could very well continue another week. Minnesota’s defense has recorded a win rate of just 22.02% of individual matchups on running plays over the course of the season, the second-lowest mark in the NFL. The Vikings also haven’t been very good on stopping the run on first down, having allowed 4.73 yards per rush in such situations which ranks 27th overall.
The 49ers have also been money within the red zone, having produced touchdowns on a league-best 77.8% of trips for the season. The Vikings have yielded TDs on nearly 68% of defensive red-zone possessions, which stands 25th in the NFL.
Cleveland Browns (6-5) at Baltimore Ravens (7-3), Sunday, 8:20 p.m. ET, NBC
Line: Ravens by 3.5
The Analyst Win Probability: Ravens 58%
Key Stat: Since Lamar Jackson took over as the Ravens’ starting quarterback in 2018, Baltimore has run the ball on 61.6% of its total offensive plays in December and January regular-season games. Tennessee (50.8%) is the only other team with a run ratio above 50% during that time frame.
Okay, it’s still technically November, but you get the idea of what John Harbaugh wants to do when the weather starts getting cold.
Key matchup: Baker Mayfield vs. Ravens pass rush
It’s no secret that Baltimore defensive coordinator Wink Martindale loves to blitz. The 2021 Ravens haven’t done so with quite the same frequency as past years, but their blitz rate of 31.8% of opponent passing plays still puts them among the top eight teams in the league.
It’s also no secret (just ask the Cleveland media) that Baker Mayfield isn’t having a particularly good (or enjoyable) season. And while the left shoulder injury that the Browns quarterback has been playing through can explain some of those struggles, it’s not a sole excuse for his wretched 2021 numbers against the blitz. Mayfield has completed just 55.6% of his passing attempts when defenses send extra attackers while generating a 68.0 passer rating that’s near the bottom of the league. His interception rate of 5.6% when blitzed is four times higher than in non-blitz situations (1.4).
The Main Course
Los Angeles Rams (7-3) at Green Bay Packers (8-3), Sunday, 4:25 ET, FOX
Line: Rams by 1
The Analyst Win Probability: Packers 54%
Why to Watch: Five NFC teams continue to hold a sizeable gap on the rest of the pack in the conference standings, and these are two of them. They’re also two of the top six teams in the NFL by our metrics, with the Rams ranking third in overall yards over expected per play and the Packers sixth.
And there’s the always-interesting revenge angle at play here as well as the Rams get an opportunity to pay back Green Bay for ending their 2020 season with a 32-18 loss at Lambeau Field in this past January’s NFC divisional playoffs.
Neither team enters this colossal showdown in top form, however. Los Angeles comes out of its bye week off back-to-back defeats to Tennessee and San Francisco in which it was often uncharacteristically beaten at the line of scrimmage – defensively by the Titans, offensively by the 49ers. The Packers have dropped two of three following their important Week 8 win at Arizona, and, while Aaron Rodgers and the offense got back in a groove last Sunday in Minnesota, a defense that’s been the unheralded backbone of the NFC North leaders’ success couldn’t get a stop in a frustrating 34-31 loss to the rival Vikings.
But the greatest concern for Matt LaFleur at the moment has to be his offensive line after standout left tackle Elgton Jenkins tore his ACL in the Minnesota game. The 2019 second-round pick has won 86.96% of his 1-on-1 pass blocking matchups this season, well above the league average of 78.6% for tackles. His likely replacement, Yosh Nijman, is at 67.57%.
That could be a real problem against a Rams defense that ranks second the league in pass rush win percentage and is now even more formidable after general manager Les Snead pulled off the signature move of the trade deadline by landing eight-time Pro Bowler Von Miller from the Broncos.
Another potential issue for Green Bay is that its passing game has been overly dependent on Davante Adams, who’s accounted for nearly 30% of the team’s reception total. The only player with a larger portion of his team’s total receptions resides on the opposite sideline in Los Angeles’ Cooper Kupp.
While the Packers’ pass defense has generally been quite good, save for last week’s subpar showing against the Vikings, it’s mostly relied upon a team-based concept without a true shutdown corner as it waits for Jaire Alexander to return from his shoulder injury. The Rams, on the other hand, have such a valuable chess piece available in Jalen Ramsey to potentially minimize Adams’ impact. Ramsey’s burn-allowed percentage (the rate at which a defender allows a targeted receiver to achieve a successful play, regardless of the quality of the quarterback’s throw) of 40.0% ranks among the top 10 of outside cornerbacks with at least 100 pass coverage snaps this season.
Green Bay’s greatest advantage may be that this game is being played in Wisconsin in late November. The Packers have won nine straight regular-season games at Lambeau Field dating back to last season and have held opponents to 17 or fewer points in the last seven of those victories, both the longest active streaks in the league.
The Rams usually need to score to win. Since Week 6 of last season, they’re 1-9 when putting up 20 points or fewer and 13-0 when generating 23 or more. And they’ve historically been right at that danger zone in cold weather games under Sean McVay, having averaged 20.8 points in five games in which the temperature fell below 40 degrees.
Key matchup: A.J. Dillon/Aaron Jones vs. Rams’ run defense
As mentioned above, the Rams’ two recent losses have largely been the byproduct of failing to consistently win at the point of attack. The Titans were able to apply fairly steady pressure, particularly up the middle from interior linemen Jeffrey Simmons and Denico Autry, on Matthew Stafford in Week 9, resulting in five sacks and two extremely costly interceptions that contributed greatly to L.A.’s 28-16 defeat.
That’s been more exception than rule, however. The Rams’ offensive line still trails only Tampa Bay’s atop our pass protection rankings, having successfully neutralized 83.95% of individual matchups for the season. And a Green Bay defense that’s 20th in pass rush win percentage doesn’t seem likely to have the same impact the Titans did.
The Packers may be able to take a few pages out of the 49ers’ playbook, however. In a Week 10 game where the Rams fell behind 21-7 and never recovered, San Francisco put together a pair of punishing, clock-killing touchdown drives on its first two series to dictate terms. On those two drives, the 49ers ran the ball on 21 of 29 total plays on a night they finished with a nearly 2-to-1 advantage in time of possession.
Green Bay is averaging a very respectable 0.291 yards over expected per play on run calls, and its increased usage of AJ Dillon in recent weeks has certainly played a part in achieving that solid number. We’ve previously pointed out Dillon’s effectiveness as a grinding, between-the-tackles complement to Aaron Jones, who may be able to return this week after missing the Minnesota game with a sprained knee.
Dillon could – and probably should – continue to have a significant role even if Jones plays. The 247-pound bruiser has been one of the league’s toughest backs to bring down this season, as his average of 2.33 yards after contact is the third-best rate in the NFL among players with 100 or more rush attempts. Dillon also boasts the third-lowest stuff rate (rush attempts where the ball carrier is tackled behind the line of scrimmage) of any running back with at least 100 carries.
The Packers were able to pound away on the Rams in last season’s playoffs, with Jones ripping off a 60-yard run and teaming with the since-departed Jamaal Williams for 164 yards.
A repeat performance would give Green Bay an excellent chance of extending its home winning streak, though it’s dubious to expect the Packers’ ground game to operate as seamlessly as the 49ers did two weeks back. San Francisco owns the eighth-best win percentage in individual run-blocking matchups. The Packers are near the bottom at No. 30, and Jenkins is the line’s lone member graded above the league average at his position.
Kyle Cunningham-Rhoads and Greg Gifford contributed.