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Countdown to Thanksgiving Day games

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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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In the final three losses under Wade Phillips, the Cowboys ran for 41, 50 and 39 yards. Their offensive line was dominated by the opposition and immediately questions were raised about the future viability of starting offensive linemen such as Leonard Davis, Kyle Kosier and Marc Columbo.

Heading into Thursday’s 43rd annual Thanksgiving Day game in Dallas against the defending Super Bowl champion Saints, the perception is that the Cowboys are running better under interim coach Jason Garrett.

Well, the results are a little deceiving. But, yes, the Cowboys have finally reached 100 yards rushing in both of the team’s victories over the Giants and Lions. But what is critical is that Garrett has emphasized the run and stuck with it, regardless of the situation.

In both games, Garrett has called more run plays (58 to 48) than passes, although all the big plays have come in the passing game. This is significant because for the season (10 games total) the Cowboys remain top heavy pass to run, with Garrett calling pass plays 63 percent of the time overall.

“We have made a bigger commitment to the run because I wanted the team to be more physical,” Garrett said after beating Detroit. “You have to want to do it, and it was the best way to find out where the team was. You can’t be a physical team on both sides of the ball if you can’t run and also can’t stop the run. I do think the team has responded in fashion to wanting to run the ball better. There is no doubt that we have the running backs.”

To make it work, Garrett has tried a few new wrinkles, like bringing tight end Jason Witten in motion and using him like a fullback as a lead blocker into the hole. This has worked on several of Felix Jones’ best runs in the last two games. Also, in last week’s win over the Lions, the Cowboys had two long scoring drives in the fourth quarter to put the game out of reach. They followed a 16-play, 71-yard drive that used almost eight minutes with a 9-play, 80-yard scoring drive that ended on quarterback Jon Kitna’s 29-yard bootleg touchdown in the final three minutes.

With 40 rushing yards, Kitna actually had more yards than Marion Barber managed on 13 carries. Jones was the leading rusher in both games with identical 51-yard totals. Still, for the season, the Cowboys are averaging only 83.9 yards a game, 29th overall.

It should be an interesting test for the Saints, who are a statistically much improved defense this season. Last year, the Saints survived on their penchant for turnovers (39 overall takeaways compared to just 15 this season) while finishing 25th in total defense. This year, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is running a tighter ship and the Saints own the No. 4 defense in yards allowed in the NFL.

Early in the season, the Cowboys' offensive line struggled against quick, versatile defensive linemen and the Saints have a similar group. To win, and to keep the ball out of Drew Brees’ hands, the Cowboys must continue to run effectively. If they do, they have a chance to ruin the Saints’ first-ever exposure to football on Thanksgiving Day.

Thursday's matchups

The Lions have managed to diminish their own tradition by losing the last six Turkey Day games. Those losses have been by an average of 23 points. Their last Thanksgiving Day win was in 2003 over the Packers. “There are only a handful of games in a season that you get to play on a stage like this, and we are running out of them,” said Lions wide Nate Burleson. “So take advantage of it. This is the biggest stage we will have this year.” Detroit coach Jim Schwartz began his NFL career under Belichick, serving as his college and pro scout in Cleveland from 1993-1995. “I owe just about my whole NFL career to him,” Schwartz said. It was Belichick who recommended Schwartz to Jeff Fisher in Tennessee where he worked for many years as the defensive coordinator. Schwartz believes the Lions are a better team this season, but the record is the same, 2-8. Suh leads all defensive tackles in fan voting for the Pro Bowl. He has 150,595 votes. He would be the first Lion to start in the Pro Bowl since current Cowboy Roy Williams in 2006.

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New Orleans at Dallas, 4:15 p.m. ET

 

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The Saints have been able to throw the ball in the last few games, but they may try to pound running back Chris Ivory early and have a more balanced attack against the Cowboys. The possible return of Reggie Bush, who has missed the last eight games with a fractured right fibula, would help because it would give the Saints a change of pace from Ivory and make things tough on the Cowboys’ back seven defenders. Interestingly, the Cowboys have been running more than throwing it since interim coach Jason Garrett has taken control. The Saints may have the NFL’s No. 2-ranked pass defense, but Jon Kitna has a special rapport with rookie wide receiver Dez Bryant, who has been sensational lately. Bryant and Miles Austin have combined for 93 catches, 1,279 yards and 11 touchdowns, so Jabari Greer and Tracy Porter face a big challenge if the Saints don’t sustain a pass rush.

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Saints quarterback Drew Brees would benefit with the return of Bush, because he is such a nifty receiver in short-yardage situations and would open up intermediate routes for Marques Colston and Lance Moore. Saints tight end Jeremy Shockey (ribs) will be a game-time decision, but backup David Thomas is a sure-handed receiver. When the Cowboys knocked the Saints from the unbeaten ranks last December, Cowboys weakside linebacker DeMarcus Ware had a monster game against Saints left tackle Jermon Bushrod. Ware had two sacks and two forced fumbles. Ware has 8.5 sacks this season, which means that Bushrod will have his hands full once again. Look for the Saints to give Bushrod some help with either a fullback or a tight end.

CZAR’S SCOOP: Before that loss last December, the Saints had won five straight against the Cowboys. After a 34-19 win over Seattle last Sunday, the Saints are feeling good about their offense, even minus Bush. “I think it’s good to be playing with some momentum,” coach Sean Payton said. “I don’t think we need to call it anything other than we’ve won our third game in a row.” Payton and Garrett are good friends. Garrett was a backup quarterback with the New York Giants from 2000-03, which coincided with three years of Payton’s four-year stint as the team’s offensive coordinator. The Saints signed rookie Justin Drescher to replace long snapper Jake Ingram, who had a poor snap on an extra point that forced holder Chase Daniel to try to run for a two-point conversion. Daniel failed to reach the end zone. Garrett Hartley later bounced a 27-yard field-goal attempt off the left upright. He missed a 29-yarder earlier in the season against Atlanta that led to a two-game benching. In the NFC, both the Packers and Eagles are listed as 7-1 to reach the Super Bowl while the Saints are 10-1, the same odds that they opened the season with according to Bodog.com.

Using donations made by players, coaches and staff members, several former Saints players and wives of current Saints handed out 1,200 turkeys and Thanksgiving food baskets Monday to needy families at a YMCA in New Orleans. Since Payton has taken over, the Saints have scored 2,000 points. Their average of 27.0 points a game is third in the NFL in that 74-game regular-season span, behind only the Patriots (28.4) and Chargers (28.0). Former coach Wade Phillips is taking a lot of heat in Dallas for comparing his winning percentage with the late Tom Landry, who was a creative football genius. Wade won one playoff game; Landry won 20.

 

Cincinnati at New York Jets, 8:20 p.m. ET

 

WHAT TO WATCH FOR: With a Cincinnati defense that has a nonexistent pass rush, the battered secondary (CB Leon Hall is the only healthy starter) figures to be sitting ducks against Mark Sanchez and his talented receiving corps. The Jets are also dangerous because running back LaDainian Tomlinson is excellent out of the backfield as a receiver. Bengals linebacker Dhani Jones must play better to stop LT. The Bengals have also been largely ineffective against the run, allowing three 100-yard rushers this season.

On offense, Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer must reduce his mistakes. Instead of getting points in the red zone late in the fourth quarter last week against Buffalo, Palmer was intercepted and the turnover led to the Bills’ go-ahead touchdown. On special teams, the Bengals have to prevent the big return, which is easier said than done considering the Jets have the AFC’s leading kick returner in Brad Smith. It will be interesting to how Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis reacts to Bengals wide receiver Terrell Owens calling him “average.” Owens had only six catches for 46 yards in two games against Revis last year. Hall’s partner, Johnathan Joseph, tweaked an earlier ankle injury while running back an interception for a touchdown last Sunday. Earlier in the game safety Roy Williams suffered a concussion.

The run of injuries in the secondary resembles the rest of the Bengals. There are 11 players on injured reserve with four being defensive backs.That’s not good against a Jets offense that has plenty of momentum with three straight come-from-behind victories, two of which were in overtime. Wide receiver Santonio Holmes, who has had just one touchdown in seven previous games against the Bengals while with the Steelers, has been instrumental in all three wins.

CZAR’S SCOOP: Since the NFL went to the three-game Thanksgiving Day format four years ago, the games haven’t been very exciting. Since 2006, the average margin of victory has been 21.9 points. That trend figures to continue with the Jets owning the AFC’s best record at 8-2 while the Bengals have the worst mark at 2-8. The Bengals have placed seven players on injured reserve since Nov. 13. The defensive line could get some relief this week with defensive end Antwan Odom returning to the active roster, but Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlop will still receive more snaps than Odom. Safety Reggie Nelson, who was acquired in a trade in September, should also see more playing time with Chris Crocker on IR.

Owens needs 152 yards to become only the second player in league history to reach 16,000 in his career. During the six-game losing streak, Palmer has thrown 10 interceptions, including two that have been returned for touchdowns. “I’ve never had a season like this,” Palmer said. “Just talking with guys on the team, nobody’s experienced anything like this.” This is the Bengals’ first Thanksgiving game, but they are 4-2 in games played on Thursday nights. Still no word on coach Marvin Lewis’s future with the Bengals. His contract expires at the end of the season.

Tagged: Bengals, Cowboys, Lions, Patriots, Saints, Giants, Jets, Jon Kitna, Tom Brady, Dhani Jones, Kyle Vanden Bosch, Drew Brees, Terrell Owens, Kyle Kosier, Roy Williams, Shaun Hill, Jason Witten, Carson Palmer, Dan Koppen, Roy Williams, Corey Williams, DeMarcus Ware, Reggie Bush, Brad Smith, Michael Johnson, Jermon Bushrod, Calvin Johnson, Leon Hall, Felix Jones, Kyle Arrington, Garrett Hartley, Michael Johnson

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