Thanksgiving Day football doesn't get any better - NBC Sports

Thanksgiving Day football doesn't get any better
Feast on this holiday lineup: Packers-Lions, Dolphins-Cowboys, 49ers-Ravens
November 23, 2011, 9:11 am

Six teams, all of them coming off a victory. Five of them with winning records, four of them in first place. The only team with a losing record is on a three-game winning streak.

Thanksgiving football doesn't get any better than this.

Let's get right to the good stuff: fast facts about each of the teams playing on Thursday, appetite whetting tidbits to get you ready for a good gorging.

Ranking Rodgers
Aaron Rodgers showed signs of mortality against the Lions, though it is telling that a 299-yard, three-touchdown performance in a win can now be considered an "off day" for him. Rodgers is on pace to shatter the single-season quarterback rating record: he currently has a 128.8 efficiency rating, 7.7 points above Peyton Manning's 2004 season.

Yes, efficiency rating is a flawed, confusing, messy stat. We're just having some fun here. And despite the stat's shortcomings, there is no way to "fluke" a rating in the 120's over a full season.

How amazing is Rodgers' rating? Imagine him throwing 50 straight incomplete passes: no catches, no touchdowns, just a string of ugly throws lasting about two games. At the end of that historically terrible slump, Rodgers would still have a rating of 112.1: fifth on the all-time single season list, just above Tom Brady's rating from last year, when he threw 36 touchdowns and just four interceptions!

A 50-pass incompletion streak is not going to happen, so let's project a more realistic slump. Let's say Rodgers turns into a mediocre quarterback and goes 15-of-30 for 150 yards, one touchdown, and one interception in every game for the rest of the year. That would leave him with season statistics of 4,068 yards, 41 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, and a 64.4 percent completion rate. His efficiency rating would be 105.1. That may not sound as historic, but it would still rank 17th all time, ahead of Rodgers' already impressive ratings in 2009 and 2010.

So while Rodgers' statistics may well settle down as the season winds down and cold weather hits, it will take a lot of settling before his numbers are anything short of "epic." Rodgers is making a case for all-time greatness, and that case keeps getting stronger.

Lions roar!
The Lions enter Thanksgiving this season with seven or more wins for just the fourth time since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970.

That's an amazing four decades of futility, especially when you realize that during the 1980s and early 1990s, the season started promptly on Labor Day, and there were no bye weeks. The Lions Thanksgiving game was often the team's 13th game of the season, not the 11th like this year, and you would think that parity and dumb luck would result in a 7-5 record every couple of years or so. Instead, it has been a pretty reliable once-per-decade event: the Lions were 7-5 in 1980, 8-4 in 1991, 7-4 in 2000, and are 7-3 right now. It is due to happen again around 2020.

Jokes about how irrelevant the Lions are on Thanksgiving have become clich‚s, but the team has earned the abuse. Since 2001, the average Lions record on Thanksgiving has been three wins and 7.2 losses. The Lions have been over .500 just 12 times since the merger. Five of those winning records occurred between 1970 and 1975, so the Lions have been realistically in the playoff hunt for their traditional holiday appearance just five times since I learned to ride a bicycle.

Here is a rundown of the five Lions teams with the best Thanksgiving winning percentages in modern NFL history. Prepare to be underwhelmed:

1) 2011 Lions (7-3): You know these guys, and you were probably ready to count them out around halftime of Sunday's Panthers game. Warts and all, they are easily the best Lions team since Barry Sanders retired.

2) 1991 Lions (8-4): A vintage Barry Sanders run `n' shoot team. These Lions finished 12-4 and beat the Cowboys in the first round of the playoffs. It was the last Lions' playoff victory. It was one-fifth of a century ago.

3) 1981 Lions (2-1): A strike ate up most of the September and October schedule in 1982. Led by running back Billy Sims and pass rusher Bubba Baker, these Lions not only had a .667 winning percentage by technicality on Turkey Day, but backed into a modified playoff tournament with a 4-5 record, losing 31-7 in the first round.

4) 2000 Lions (7-4): Gritty, forgettable team coached by arch-conservative Bobby Ross, who never met an off-tackle run he didn't like. Charlie Batch was the quarterback, and the Lions eventually finished 9-7 but out of the playoffs.

5) 1971 Lions (6-3-1): The Lions spent the early 1970s hanging around .500 or just above it. Greg Landry was the quarterback, Lem Barney the star defender, and cigarettes cost four cents per pack and were sold in junior high cafeterias, or something like that.

Only two of those teams made the playoffs, one on a technicality, which reminds us what an uphill battle against history these Lions are battling. What's worse, the next team on our winning percentage list is one all of us can remember: the 2007 Lions, who were 6-4 before losing to the Packers on Thanksgiving. That team finished 7-9 and went 0-16 the following year. Who are the Lions facing Thursday? Oh yeah. Maybe this year will be different from most of the last 40.

Dolphins resurface
The Dolphins have won their last three games by a combined score of 86-20 after losing their first seven games. The primary reason for their turnaround is simple: the Dolphins have fixed their red zone offense.

WhenRed zone tripsTDsGoal-to-goTDs
First six games217114
Last four games131076

The Dolphins reached the red zone about 3.5 times per game in their first six games and 3.25 times per game in the last four, so their open field offense has not changed much. They have just traded in many, many field goals (and some critical turnovers) for touchdowns.

The Dolphins have become more effective in the red zone because they have stopped trying to force the ball to Brandon Marshall. They have gotten creative about using end-arounds to Reggie Bush and Brian Hartline when close to paydirt. Big targets like Anthony Fasano and fullback Charles Clay have gotten involved over the middle. The Dolphins are no longer predictable at the goal line, and with their offense just as good inside the 20 as everywhere else (not great, mind you, but good enough), the Dolphins are officially off laughingstock life support.

Dallas difference maker
Those of us who tuned in for the DeMarco Murray Show against the Redskins were disappointed: Murray gained just 73 yards on 25 carries and was frequently stuffed at the line of scrimmage.

Fiametta's statusRushesYardsYards per rush
With him26162.56.25
Without27.2585.753.14

How important is Fiametta? The table shows the Cowboys rushing stats in the six games Fiametta played and the four games he missed. It's true that the Cowboys faced some great defenses like the Lions and Jets without Fiametta, and weak defenses like the Rams with him. There is also a 91-yard Murray run in the mix that skews the data. Still, when yards and yards per rush nearly double with one player in the lineup, it says something.

Fiametta missed Sunday's game with an undisclosed illness, and early in the week he was still suffering from unexplained nausea. If he returns to the lineup Thursday, you will notice the difference, and so will DeMarco Murray.

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Torrey rebellion
The Ravens offense lives and dies by the bomb, but it has had detonation issues in recent weeks. The Seahawks and Jaguars both upset the Ravens by taking away the deep pass and forcing Joe Flacco to work underneath. The message was clear: if Ravens receivers cannot get open deep, the Ravens are not going to move the ball.

PlayerReceptionsYardsTPC20+40+
Torrey Smith2959020.3114
Denarius Moore2441017.193
Doug Baldwin3254417142
Julio Jones3049816.674
A.J. Green4163515.5124
Titus Young283631332
Greg Little4243810.441
Greg Salas272649.820

This is the best wide receiver class since Terrell Owens, Keyshawn Johnson, Marvin Harrison and others entered the league in 1996, and Smith, like Green, Jones, and Young, promises to figure heavily in the playoff picture. When Flacco and Smith connect deep, the Ravens have a great chance of winning. When they don't, the Ravens are in trouble: in their three losses, Smith has just six catches for 60 yards, with a long reception of only 20 yards.

Akers of work
David Akers had an off game against the Cardinals: two of his field goal attempts were blocked, and he missed wide right on the third. But Akers can be forgiven. He did score the 49ers' first nine points of the game (all the scoring they really needed), and he has been a busy, busy man this year.

With 26 field goals in 31 attempts, Akers is on pace to break both the NFL's field goal and attempt records. The field goal record is held by Neil Rackers, who kicked 40 for the 2005 Cardinals. The attempt record is held by Bruce Grossman of the 1966 Rams and Curt Knight of the 1971 Redskins, each with 49. Akers in on pace for 41.6 field goals in 49.6 attempts.

When a kicker is breaking field goal records, it is often a sign that a team's offense is not very good: coaches don't like to settle for three points so often. While Rackers played for your basic 5-11 Cardinals team, Gossett and Knight played for teams a lot like this year's 49ers: their defenses were great, their offenses were okay, and the kickers kept very busy cleaning up stalled drives. Gossett's Rams went 8-6 thanks in large part to a Deacon Jones-Merlin Olsen defense. Knight helped vault a Redskins team with defensive stars like Richie Petitbon and Chris Hanburger into the playoffs. George Allen coached both teams: the man liked to call for the kicker.

The 49ers are in pretty good company with Olsen's Fearsome Foursome and Allen's Over the Hill Gang, though Jim Harbaugh would love to see Akers fall short of the records by trading a few more of those field goals for extra points.

Mike Tanier writes for NBCSports.com and Rotoworld.com and is a senior writer for Football Outsiders.

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