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Countdown: Lions aim to protect Thanksgiving slot

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John Czarnecki

John Czarnecki has been the editorial consultant for "FOX NFL Sunday" since its 1994 inception. This season marks Czarnecki's 32nd year covering the NFL. He is one of 44 selectors to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

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Green Bay at Detroit, 12:30 ET

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Lions QB Daunte Culpepper practiced as the starter and Drew Stanton figured to be his backup in the Lions' 70th Thanksgiving Day game before a late announcement Thursday that rookie Matthew Stafford would be good to go. Stafford separated his left shoulder last Sunday when he was hit by the Browns' C.J. Mosley on the game's next-to-last play and looked as though he'd be unable to play, having missed three straight days of practice.
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Top WR Calvin Johnson also missed practiced this week, but Johnson has played in the past under such circumstances. He's a game-time decision. Even with the loss of two Green Bay starters (CB Al Harris and OLB Aaron Kampman), the edge must go to the Packers because the Lions have the league's worst pass defense, allowing 275 yards per game. Packers QB Aaron Rodgers is throwing for 255 yards per game despite his 43 sacks. He is only two TD passes behind Brett Favre (21 to 19) and last week WR Greg Jennings finally got on track. The Packers figure to keep Charles Woodson in the slot on nickel defense unless Johnson (161 receiving yards last Sunday) plays. If he does, they'll isolate Woodson on Detroit's best player. Tramon Williams starts for Harris while rookie LB Brad Jones replaces Kampman. The defender the Lions should isolate on is CB Jarrett Bush. The Packers' big defensive linemen Johnny Jolly and Cullen Jenkins are getting healthier and figure to bring a ton of pressure on Detroit's quarterback. Packers RB Ryan Grant will start despite a neck injury. Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher will be the Packers' OTs. CZAR'S SCOOP: There will continue to be discussions among a majority of teams that this traditional Thanksgiving Day game should be rotated among every franchise because of the competitive advantage of playing at home on the holidays while preparing on such a short week. The Lions' Bill Ford, Jr. once expertly fought a measure at one owners meeting that would have taken the game away from Detroit while rotating the game around the NFL. It's basically an argument between traditions — the Lions have hosted this game since 1934 — and the new-style NFL that believes the Lions, based on their recent history, don't deserve such a national telecast. Head coach Jim Schwartz told season-ticket holders in a town hall meeting that he plans to put "barbed wire" around this game and never allow the league to take it away. Based on won-lost records, the Lions haven't dominated the series. Their overall record on Thanksgiving is 33-34-2. Browns head coach Eric Mangini called and apologized to Lions coach Jim Schwartz — the two men have a long history since working under Bill Belichick in Cleveland — about his accusations that the Lions faked injuries in last Sunday's game, thus causing clock stoppage when Cleveland was on offense. "I was frustrated with the situation and probably said more than I should have," Mangini said. "We had plenty of opportunities to win the game and we didn't." Mangini said he cleared the air with Schwartz and the two "are now fine."

Oakland at Dallas, 4:15 ET

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The Cowboys' offense has taken a nosedive the past two games, totaling 291 yards of offense while converting just a fourth of the time (6 of 23) on third downs. Both QB Tony Romo (back) and TE Jason Witten (sprained left foot) are expected to start. But the real quandary in Dallas is the three-headed monster at running back — Marion Barber, Felix Jones and Tashard Choice — and how to rotate them all while also getting into a rhythm on offense. Both Barber and Jones have struggled in pass protection lately, something that can't happen with new RT Doug Free. But running the ball seems to be the way to beat the Raiders, who are allowing 158 rushing yards per game. The Raiders will bring constant pressure with ex-Cowboy Greg Ellis and Richard Seymour off the edges. QB Bruce Gradkowski earns his second straight start for JaMarcus Russell after he rallied the troops to an 80-yard drive last Sunday that tied the Bengals, whom the Raiders beat. Gradkowski said this is a "dream come true," being able to play on national TV on Thanksgiving. Gradkowski seems to be clicking with rookie WR Louis Murphy and he also benefits with the return of WR Chaz Schilens. Oakland's defense will be minus OLB Jon Alston (concussion). A guy Cowboys wideout Roy Williams should be concerned about is hard-hitting Oakland safety Tyvon Branch. CZAR'S SCOOP: Since Tom Cable has been the head coach, the Raiders have had just one two-game winning streak, beating Houston and Tampa Bay to close out last season. And those two wins earned Cable the full-time gig, replacing Lane Kiffin, but statistics don't lie. The Raiders have been outscored by 58 points over eight quarters following a win. Shane Lechler, the Raiders' All-Pro punter, said the players don't know how to deal properly with success. "Especially over the last six years," Lechler said. "You win one, and just the way it's handled and approached the next week — and it's not about the staff — it's in (the locker room). Things aren't handled in the right way. When we beat Philadelphia, everyone was all cool. But it was just one win." The Raiders were whipped 38-0 by the Jets after beating the Eagles. Lechler said he won't be targeting the Cowboys' massive video board during the game. NFL on FOX's Jimmy Johnson spent Tuesday watching the Cowboys' practice with owner Jerry Jones and you can bet that Johnson gave him an earful about some of his players, including inconsistent WR Roy Williams. Rumors persist that the Raiders are for sale, but it's unlikely that owner Al Davis, who remains in poor health, would ever sell the franchise unless he received a financial premium like $1 billion. Forbes Magazine valued the Raiders at $797 million. Conversely, the Cowboys are valued at $1.7 billion.

N.Y. Giants at Denver, 8:20 ET

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: Broncos QB Kyle Orton came off the bench in relief of an overmatched Chris Simms last Sunday and he says his left ankle is feeling better. The Broncos have lost four straight after shocking the NFL with a 6-0 start. The biggest offensive problem is the inability to finish drives, plus the lack of a dominant running game. Broncos WR Eddie Royal still doesn't have a touchdown catch and hasn't evolved into the Wes Welker role in this offense, yet. On the flip side, the Giants won't have RB Ahmad Bradshaw, meaning that Brandon Jacobs (656 yards) will have to carry the load while Danny Ware (4 runs; 0 catches) will be the nickel running back. The Giants' opponents down the stretch have a .583 winning percentage. New York's defense needs to get more out its pass rush and it helps that CB Aaron Ross appears ready to help after missing eight games with a hamstring injury. Giants OLB Michael Boley is coming off a huge game with 11 solo tackles, a sack and two tackles for losses, and he should be able to neutralize Denver TE Tony Scheffler. Giants QB Eli Manning found a new connection with Mario Manningham last Sunday while also featuring Kevin Boss. Manningham and Boss combined for 11 receptions for 202 yards and 2 TDs in last Sunday's win over Atlanta. CZAR'S SCOOP: Giants co-owner John Mara has complained about the Giants being selected for this game and forced to travel over 1,600 miles. Mara's comments are very interesting, considering this matchup was created for the league's own TV network. Yes, there is not a lot of good sentiment for these Thursday night games, especially by teams trying to make the playoffs being forced to travel. Ex-Broncos coach Mike Shanahan admitted that he met with Buffalo GM Russ Brandon earlier in the week, but everyone knows that Shanny prefers to wait and see what transpires in Dallas and Washington before making any commitment to Bills owner Ralph Wilson. Another longshot possibility for Shanahan could be Houston, where owner Bob McNair expects Gary Kubiak to lead the Texans to the playoffs. Shanahan might like the Texans because it would allow him to work with his son, Kyle, who is Kubiak's offensive coordinator. Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels took some heat from the Chargers after telling them "We own you" last Sunday in pregame warmups. Some of the trash talking spilled onto the field and hurt his players — two personal foul penalties — more than it undermined the Chargers' effort. Said Chargers LB Shaun Phillips of McDaniels: "We'll worry about him when he's on the field making plays."

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