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NFL AM: Thanksgiving Thursday Takeaways

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It was feast or famine for six NFC teams on Thursday as part of the traditional Thanksgiving Day slate of NFL games. We saw the suddenly surging Lions thump the drowning Eagles, the rolling Panthers bury the hapless Cowboys and the upstart Bears pull off a big upset of the enigmatic Packers at Lambeau. Each game offered a pretty good glimpse of where the two involved teams stand as the season hits its final month.

CAROLINA RISING, DALLAS IS DONE

It’s not often we get treated to an unbeaten team playing on Thanksgiving Day, and it’s even less likely that team goes into their game as the “underdog,” but that was the case in the late afternoon matinee and the Carolina Panthers quickly proved how foolish that was.

Carolina used two first half pick-sixes of Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo to demolish Dallas 33-14 in a game that was never close. The Panthers never really got going offensively against a Dallas defense that is better than they often get credit for. Carolina managed just one touchdown on offense and settled for four Graham Gano field goals over the course of the afternoon. But it didn’t matter because the Panthers defense picked up the slack from the start of the game.

Three plays into the contest, Carolina took the lead when Romo was picked off over the middle by Kurt Coleman on a pass intended for Jason Witten. Coleman then weaved through Dallas offense to take the ball 36 yards to the house and give the Panthers a 7-0 lead less than a minute into the game. The teams traded field goals from there and Carolina took a 10-3 lead into the second quarter. The Panthers tacked on another three there, and the next Dallas possession brought the backbreaker.

On the second play of their ensuing drive, Romo made another poor decision on a pass intended for Terrance Williams and All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly swooped in to intercept it, then took it 32 yards with ease to put the Panthers up 17-3. The game was effectively over right then and there, but Kuechly wasn’t done there and on Dallas’ very next offensive play, he picked off Romo again when he made a great play on an underthrown pass intended for Witten.

Unlike the first two Romo picks, this one didn’t go for six, but the damage was done, as the Carolina defense had buried Dallas under an avalanche too big to climb out of. Afterward, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton heaped praise on Kuechly, one of the team’s many sparkplugs.

“Luke’s a little firecracker. He has a dark side,” Newton said. “I don’t want to kind of give away who he is, but a person that plays like that is not just a nice guy. He has the smile, the charisma, the lawyer look, but he has like a demolition mentality.”

What Kuechly and the Carolina defense did on Thursday is what makes this Panthers team so special. On a day when the offense wasn’t clicking, the defense gave Carolina a laugher anyway. Newton was just 16-of-23 for 183 yards and went without a touchdown pass for the first time this season. He did find the end zone on the ground at the end of a long third quarter drive. But the game was already well in hand at that point thanks to the Panthers defense, which limited Dallas to just 210 total net yards.

That Carolina defense ended things for Dallas in more ways than one.

It was always going to take a miracle for the Cowboys to make a playoff run after losing seven straight while Romo was sidelined with a broken collarbone. Last week’s less than stellar win in Miami did little to change that. The fact that anyone thought they could do it says more about the woeful NFC East than it does about this deeply flawed Dallas team. But even a miracle is out of the question for the Cowboys now.

Not only did they get tarred and feathered on their home turf on Thanksgiving Day, but Romo, who looked more than a little bit off all day, went down with a clavicle injury late in the third quarter that looked shockingly similar to the one he suffered in Week 2, which cost him eight weeks on the shelf. Regardless of what the tests on that injury reveal, it’s time for the Cowboys to put their quarterback back on the shelf for the rest of the season and embrace their lost year.

At 3-8, the Cowboys are currently tied with Cleveland, Tennessee and San Diego for most losses in the league with eight. With the reins back in the hands of Matt Cassel, Dallas seems ticketed for a Top 5 draft position that could be a real boon for the franchise. After all, though Romo’s absence exacerbated the team’s woes, the Cowboys have a flawed roster with or without him, and adding some high-end talent through the draft could put them in prime position to bounce back in 2016 and seize back an NFC East division that is perennially up for grabs.

Just as important, the lost 2015 season has shown Dallas how vital it is for them to develop a Romo replacement plan in the immediate future. It’s something they should have done when the aging quarterback started experiencing chronic back issues, but last year’s finish pushed those thoughts out of sight. This year, they’re front and center and the Cowboys must formulate a plan. Whether that involves acquiring a quarterback like Johnny Manziel or Colin Kaepernick, or drafting a QB with their high draft slot is anyone’s guess, but the time to act is now.

They need only look across the field on Thursday for proof positive what a franchise-altering quarterback is capable of. The Panthers are the story of the NFL this season and with yet another rout despite a rare “off” week for Newton, they’ve laid claim to the moniker of most complete team in football. One year after backing into the playoffs with a losing record, they have an opportunity for an unbeaten run at the Lombardi Trophy. It’s hard not to like their chances.

BEARS DAMPEN FAVRE NIGHT IN GREEN BAY

In Thursday’s nightcap, one of the teams hoping to stand in Carolina’s way once again got exposed by a division rival on their home turf, turning up the heat in the NFC North.

On a night when the Green Bay Packers honored future Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre and saw the return of Hall of Fame legend Bart Starr to Lambeau, Aaron Rodgers — the only other Green Bay quarterback to lift a Lombardi Trophy — was made to look merely average by a Chicago Bears team that is exceeding expectations this season.

Pegged by many as one of the worst teams in the league this season, the Bears picked up their fifth win of the season on Thursday night, grinding out a 17-13 win over the Packers in Green Bay. Chicago became the second NFC North team in three weeks to go into Lambeau Field and leave with a victory, something that seemed impossible just a year ago.

For the Bears, the game was a sign of the progress being made on both sides of the ball in the first year under coach John Fox. Neither team managed to do much on offense, as Rodgers and Chicago’s Jay Cutler barely combined for 400 yards passing. But the Bears controlled the pace of the game and never let Rodgers and his offense find a rhythm.

The Packers looked strong early after a 25-yard touchdown catch and run by Eddie Lacy staked them to a first quarter lead. But that was the only time Green Bay found the end zone all night and the game ended with them on the doorstep, with four chances for Rodgers to win the game from the 8-yard-line that all failed.

“Tough, hard-fought victory,” Bears coach John Fox said. “It’s a very difficult team to come up here and beat. I thought our guys played hard. They played their hearts out; just tough, gritty football.”

That has been the mentality for the Bears in the first year under Fox and it’s allowed them to reach five wins through 11 games, in a season when few gave them a chance to win that many all year. They dug deep again Thursday night without spectacular play by any one player but through a concerted effort.

The big story for the Bears entering the night was the return of receiver Alshon Jeffery and running back Matt Forte to the lineup and both did their part. Jeffery was targeted 11 times by Cutler and caught seven passes for 90 yards. Forte split carries with Jeremy Langford and toted the ball 15 times for 44 yards.

But in true 2015 Bears fashion, neither of those star players found the end zone. Instead it was tight end Zach Miller who broke the ice for Chicago with a three-yard second quarter touchdown catch to tie the score. On Chicago’s next possession after that score, they drove all the way down the field again and Langford lunged in from the one-yard-line to give the Bears the lead for good. Green Bay did manage two Mason Crosby field goals, sandwiched around that Langford score, in the final two minutes of the half, but the Bears took a 14-13 lead in at halftime.

After the Packers honored Favre at midfield at halftime, the second half was a defensive struggle between two teams desperately seeking the offensive spark that Favre so often provided his teams. After gaining 203 yards in the first half, the Packers offense went ice cold over the final two quarters, totaling just 162 more, many of those piled up on a last-gasp drive for a game-winning touchdown that came up short.

Rodgers played well enough in the first half with 115 yards and a touchdown pass, but the Bears defense had him off his game in the second half, where he completed just 9-of-22 passes for 87 yards. That included a big interception with under four minutes to go in the fourth quarter that nearly sealed Green Bay’s fate.

After the Rodgers pick, the Packers defense forced a quick three-and-out and used their timeouts to preserve clock. Chicago punted back, and Rodgers seemed to find something on the ensuing drive, quickly matriculating the offense down the field. They got from their own 20 to the red zone in under a minute and were at the Bears 8-yard-line with 51 seconds remaining. But four straight passes from Rodgers fell incomplete as Chicago held on for the victory.

The Bears offense was likewise ineffective, managing just 146 yards in the second half. But they did manage to drive into field goal range early in the fourth and when Robbie Gould nailed a 21-yard chip shot field goal, it made it so the Packers needed a touchdown instead of a field goal to win the game, a distinction that proved vital. Afterward, Cutler lauded the effort of his club in the face of adversity all night and all season.

“This has been a confident group all year long,” Cutler said. “Once we started playing some tight games, winning a few, we have been in a lot of games in the fourth quarter and we’ve won some and we’ve lost some. But the theme is that we have always been there, we’ve always had a shot. I think coach Fox has been sending the message and the guys have been listening and believing in him.”

At 5-6, the Bears are still a pretty big longshot to make a playoff push, but they’re laying the groundwork for a revival in a surprising first season under Fox. If they can somehow keep Adam Gase from pursuing a head coaching position and convince him to stay in Chicago to continue mentoring Cutler, the Bears could be sneaky good as early as next season.

As for the Packers, it seems like forever ago when they were 6-0 and being tabbed as the best team in the NFC. With losses in four of their last five, their flaws have been exposed and Green Bay is spiraling. It seems unlikely they miss the playoffs at this point in a weak NFC, but they’ll have to do something over the next several weeks to remedy what ails them if they have any hope to advance beyond that.

LIONS SINK CHIP’S SHIP

It would come as little surprise on this Black Friday morning if the whispers about Chip Kelly’s imminent departure from the Philadelphia Eagles to either the Tennessee Titans or back to college football became full blown screams in Philly.

Chip’s Eagles put forth another embarrassing performance on Thursday afternoon, in the kickoff game of the Thanksgiving festivities, and the 45-14 loss to the lowly Detroit Lions showed just how far Philly has fallen in a short period of time. Just a few weeks ago, after an overtime defeat of the Cowboys, the Eagles appeared to be ready to challenge for the NFC East title.

Since then, they’ve lost three straight, including back-to-back 40-point outputs by Tampa Bay and Detroit of all teams. Now at 4-7, while technically still “in it” with just one less win than the division-leading New York Giants, the Eagles are in freefall, with a date with the unbeaten Patriots looming next week. The mastermind Chip Kelly didn’t have many answers on Thursday for how they’ll find their way out of this mess, though to his credit he did finally take the blame after the latest defeat.

“It starts with me,” he said. “I’m not pointing fingers at anybody, and I don’t think anybody points fingers at anybody [else]. … I think once you start pointing fingers and saying you blame it on somebody else, then you’ve lost what you have to do.”

Blame has to begin with Kelly, as it is his deeply flawed roster that has put Philadelphia in this spot. On Thursday, the Lions exposed all the holes Kelly failed to address this offseason as he was throwing money at name players and collecting running backs like baseball cards. The Eagles entered the season with one of the best front-seven groups in football, but it wasn’t particularly deep and since inevitable injuries have set in, it’s been tough-sledding for that group. Making matters worse for the front bunch is a continued lack of support on the back end.

On Thursday, Philadelphia’s secondary helped Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford look as good as he ever has. The former No. 1 overall pick completed 27-of-38 passes for 337 yards and five touchdowns in the victory. And of his 11 incomplete passes, at least half were drops on perfectly thrown balls. Stafford looked elite on Thursday, and the Lions followed his lead. Though credit is also due to new offensive coordinator Jim-Bob Cooter, who took over the job from Joe Lombardi a month ago and has helped revive the Detroit offense.

“He seems very comfortable,” wide receiver Golden Tate said of Stafford. “The throws he’s making are on point. He’s taking his three-step drops, his seven-step drops and throwing money balls out there and guys are making plays. It starts with coach Jim Bob and it starts with Matthew and they are doing a great job of leading this team.”

Tate was on the receiving end of one of Stafford touchdown passes and Theo Riddick caught another. But the prime recipient was Calvin Johnson. Megatron had his best game in two years, hauling in eight passes for 93 yards and three scores, and he too heaped praise on Stafford and Cooter after the game.

“We’re just playing complete football and we’re attacking the defense and not playing defense on offense.”

That change in mentality for the Lions has led to three straight wins and though a 1-7 start to this season quickly ko’ed Detroit after last year’s playoff run, the mini-revival tour they’re on has peaked optimism about what they’re capable of down the road.

The Eagles, on the other hand, are headed in the opposite direction. While his defense was getting shredded, Chip Kelly’s innovative offense managed just 227 total yards. Starting for the first time this season for the injured Sam Bradford, Mark Sanchez was under constant duress, sacked six times and hurried, rushed and knocked down at least a dozen more. Sanchez turned in a decent statistical day in spite of that, with 19-of-27 for 199 yards and two touchdowns, but he wasn’t as good as those numbers would indicate. Making matters worse, the Philly rushing offense was dormant once again. DeMarco Murray carried 14 times for 30 yards, a total that was matched by fourth-string running back Kenjon Barner on half the carries.

The Eagles battered and beaten offensive line is at the point where they can’t pass block and they can’t run block, so Kelly’s offense is going nowhere fast. And one of the only members of that group still standing, center Jason Kelce, took the entire team to task after Thursday’s loss.

“It takes a collective effort to get your ass beat like this. It really does,” he said. “At this point, we’re 4-7. We’re going to find out what this locker room is made of. We’re going to find out the guys who are all in and with each other, and we’re going to find out who are the cowards. We’re going to find out who the guys are that give anonymous [quotes], who the guys are who talk behind people’s back. We’re going to find out who the guys are who throw people under the bus.”

The truth is, the bus is rolling out of Philly quickly with Kelly likely will be on it, and the disarray he’s left the Eagles organization in may take years to rebuild.


About Devon Jeffreys

Devon Jeffreys