As NFL players and fans alike give thanks, four teams spent part of Thanksgiving day battling it out for a chance to improve their place in the standings. Here's what we learned:
1. Believe it or not, a Washington Football Team (4-7) with Alex Smith at quarterback might actually win the NFC East for more reasons than the fact the division is awful. Smith has been an excellent game manager -- which we use as a compliment and not a minimalization of his ability -- and did it again Thursday, completing 19 of 26 passes for 149 yards and a touchdown to Logan Thomas. His only mistake was his interception thrown to Jaylon Smith, who came one Terry McLaurin tackle away from a game-tying score. It was as close as Dallas (3-8) would get, though, because of Washington's defense.
2. The Washington defense is the No. 1 reason this team has a legitimate chance to end up in the postseason. A week after finding a way to win a close one over the Minnesota Vikings in Minneapolis, Dallas was reduced to a long shot to Amari Cooper and not much of anything else by a Washington opposition that played sound, disciplined ball for the majority of the game. An attempt at running Dallas' version of the Philly Special was promptly snuffed out by a Washington defense that almost appeared to have known it was coming. That wasn't a display of an intelligence advantage, but a prime example of how a disciplined defense can shut down an opponent. Because of this type of play, Washington kept Dallas from tying the game following Smith's second-half interception, then dominated the rest of the game, capped by Montez Sweat's interception of Dalton returned for a touchdown.
Washington kicked Dallas' tails up front, plain and simple, and it's the latest in what we might look back upon as the two-week stretch in which the Football Team turned the corner under the direction of its defensive-minded coach, Ron Rivera.
3. In case folks weren't aware of his presence this season, America now knows who Antonio Gibson is. The rookie runner from Memphis rushed 20 times for 115 yards and three scores Thursday, getting Washington on the board early with a five-yard run to finish off a 12-play, 75-yard drive and take a 7-3 lead. His fourth-quarter touchdown runs served as the punches that dazed the Cowboys and then finally knocked them to the mat, cooking Dallas' turkey with his 37-yard scamper to make it a 34-16 game.
Gibson runs hard and is a threat in the passing game, too, and while Washington has spent the first half of the season switching quarterbacks and attempting to figure out who it is as a team, Gibson has received valuable experience. He's Dallas' new boogeyman, too, rushing for 243 yards and four touchdowns on 40 carries in Washington's two meetings with the Cowboys this season. He's gained 402 yards and scored seven touchdowns in his other nine games.
Washington is another year or two from being a legitimate team, but its defensive front is a menace and it has enough pieces (Smith, Gibson, McLaurin) to at least be competitive offensively. Quick development of additions like Gibson helps speed that process.
4. The D in Dallas is starting to stand for Desperation (stay with me -- this is my bit this week). A singular play proved it and swung this game from close to a blowout. Following Smith's interception return and Dallas' inability to turn that into more than a field goal, the Cowboys found themselves facing fourth down and trailing by just four points early in the fourth. Mike McCarthy and special teams coordinator John Fassel inexplicably chose to run a fake punt, and much like on their failed version of the Philly Special, Washington didn't bite. Gibson scored his second touchdown of the day on the very next play on a run right up the heart of Dallas' defense.
With self-inflicted mistakes like Ezekiel Elliott's first-half fumble considered, it's fair to understand why McCarthy might have felt he needed to give his team a spark. But it instead just became proof that a team that is admittedly shorthanded is struggling to find consistent, reliable success when it possesses the ball.
-- Nick Shook
1. Deshaun Watson continues to carry the Houston Texans (4-7) with breathtaking throws and near impeccable play. The quarterback divebombed a lousy Lions defense with big plays, used his magic to escape pressure and fired lasers all over the field. Watson picked apart Detroit like the last bits of meat on a Thanksgiving bird. Watson tossed four TDs, two over 25 air-yards, and completed 17 of 25 passes for 318 yards and a 150.4 passer rating. Injuries to Randall Cobb and Kenny Stills didn't come into play, with Watson leaning on Will Fuller and Brandin Cooks. Fuller tortured Lions corners with his speed, catching six passes for a whopping 171 yards and two TDs. The final Texans TD was a wonderful play call by OC Tim Kelly. An elongated flea-flicker that got Fuller wide open, without a defender within 20 yards, injected some pizzazz into a game that felt like it was inoculated with tryptophan early in the contest. Not much separates the overall rosters in Thursday's matchup, except one team has Watson, and the other does not. A year in which Watson is playing much better than his team's four wins suggest, the QB reminded a national audience he's one of the best signal-callers in the NFL.
2. Both clubs got off to a sloppy start, looking every bit of cellar-dwellers in a sleepwalking first half. The Lions, in particular, were careless with the football, turning it over on three straight possessions following an opening-drive score. Fortunately for Detroit, Houston was also shooting itself in the foot, with one fumble of its own and a cavalcade of penalties. In the first two quarters, the Texans committed eight penalties for 65 yards. The slapdash first half included a combined four turnovers, 95 yards in penalties, a missed PAT and a kickoff out of bounds and ended with poor clock management. The silver lining for Houston was J.J. Watt's pick-6 of Matthew Stafford early in the first quarter. The former DPOY had four batted balls last week. Thursday, he held onto one and got his team on the board as the offense scuttled early.
3. The Lions offense couldn't take advantage of a defense that struggled all year. Houston entered last in the NFL at creating turnovers. Detroit, in a giving mood, coughed it up three times. Insistent upon establishing the run against the league's worst run defense, the Lions couldn't get on track early, earning just 2.5 yards per carry on 17 first-half totes. To open the third quarter, Detroit finally took advantage of the Texans' bad run D, sticking to the ground on 10 straight plays to open the half while trailing by nine points. Emblematic of the Lions issues, a 14-play drive took over half of the quarter but ended with a field goal. Outside of a few nice plays to tight end T.J. Hockenson, the Detroit offense was an inconsistent bore for much of the afternoon.
4. The Lions (4-7) lost to a three-win team for the second straight week. Matt Patricia is staring at the end of the line. NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported Thursday morning that the Thanksgiving game loomed large for the coach's future in Detroit. Consider it an abject failure. The Lions coach managed the game poorly, his defense is atrocious, and the entire team sleepwalked much of the contest. Detroit ownership put out a mandate that the team needed to be competitive in December in order for the brass to keep their jobs in 2021. Heading into last week, Patricia's team had a chance to make a run and at least remain in the hunt for the playoffs. Instead, his club laid back-to-back rotten eggs. Getting lambasted by a fellow bad team on a national stage could be the final nail that ends Patricia's tenure in Detroit.
-- Kevin Patra