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2023 NFL season, Week 12: Six things to watch for during Thanksgiving Day games

Thanksgiving, football and Madden -- they're the holy trinity for one of America's favorite family holidays, and all three will be celebrated again on Thursday.

Last year's inaugural John Madden Thanksgiving Celebration was not a one-off. Madden's legacy will be honored again on the football day he helped stamp in red letters on the calendar. This year's trio of games is pretty zesty, too, with each one holding postseason relevance.

Think of Thursday's tripleheader as a turducken -- the mysterious, Frankensteined fowl dish Madden helped make famous -- which is a deboned chicken stuffed inside a deboned duck stuffed inside a deboned turkey. Each layer provides a different texture and flavor, and by the end of the day you're stuffed into tryptophanic oblivion.

The first bite is Packers-Lions: The turkey portion of the dish that serves as the traditional, familiar layer for the day. But unlike prior seasons during which the Lions were less competitive, this year's beast has been beautifully prepared. Detroit is 8-2, its best mark through 10 games in 61 years, and is coming off a 12-point comeback in the final four minutes in Week 11 against the Bears despite the offense struggling for three quarters. The Packers also have stayed alive at 4-6 and remain in the playoff hunt. This is no dry white-meat game.

Next comes the duck layer, which can be a little too rich and fatty for some folks. But the middle-game matchup of Washington at Dallas has given us some classics over the years since their first Thanksgiving Day meeting in 1968, including NFL Network's No. 1 all-time moment on the holiday, when Clint Longley came off the bench to bomb the D.C. into submission in 1974. Dallas clearly is the better team right now, winning four of five games, while the Commanders have dropped four of five. Still, the Cowboys might be dominant at home this season so far, but they're only 2-4 in their past six Turkey Day games.

Last comes the final dish, that scrumptious chicken that has been basting in its own juices all day. Just when you think you can't take another bite, arguably the most important game of the day arrives with 49ers-Seahawks. San Francisco looked pretty bland during its three-game losing streak earlier this season, but the Niners have packed some punch since. The Seahawks have looked a little shaking in losing two of three, and Geno Smith has a banged-up wing, but they're only a game back from San Fran in the NFC West.

"There's no place that I would rather be today on Thanksgiving than right here, right now, at a football game," Madden said during the 1997 Bears-Lions Thanksgiving Day game. Although the turducken made its Madden debut during a Saints game the previous December, many saw it for the first time when Barry Sanders grabbed one of its six (!) legs and got to eating. There even will be a special turducken-themed coin flipped during Thursday's three games, in case you wondered about the power of the poultry.

In honor of the mighty triple-bird chimera and all its extra appendages, here are six things to watch for from the three games during the NFL's John Madden Thanksgiving Celebration:

Green Bay Packers
2023 · 4-6-0
Detroit Lions
2023 · 8-2-0
  • WHERE: Ford Field (Detroit)
  • WHEN: 12:30 p.m. ET | FOX, FOX Deportes

  1. Lions’ RB duo looks to be their engine right now. The return of David Montgomery from injury has kicked the Detroit run game into high gear. In the past two games, Montgomery and rookie Jahmyr Gibbs have combined for 46 carries for 305 yards and five scores, plus 116 receiving yards on 11 combined grabs. With Jared Goff coming off a rough game in Week 11 (three INTs, plus two more dropped picks), the Lions leaned on their 1-2 punch to come back to beat Chicago. The Packers know well about the duo, having struggled to stop it in Detroit’s Week 4 win at Lambeau, as Montgomery ran for 121 yards and three scores and Gibbs added 51 yards from scrimmage. Green Bay’s run defense looked solid against the shorthanded Rams and Vikings, but that unit has struggled much of the season, allowing 200-plus rushing yards in three different games. The Lions won’t get away from throwing the ball with Goff, even after Sunday’s struggles, but the running backs could be the main dish. With Montgomery’s smash and Gibbs’ flash, they’re the perfect Thanksgiving pairing, right up there with turkey and stuffing or mashed potatoes and gravy. 
  2. Jordan Love is trending in the right direction but will face a stiff test. Love is coming off arguably his best NFL start this past Sunday, throwing for 322 yards and two TDs and no interceptions. He rallied the Packers twice from second-half deficits against the Chargers, hitting Romeo Doubs for the game-winning TD with just over two minutes remaining. It hasn’t been an easy season for Love replacing Aaron Rodgers, and one of Love's toughest starts came against Detroit in the 34-20 loss in Green Bay. Love was sacked five times and picked off twice as the Lions ran off 27 unanswered points before the Packers could find the end zone. Doing so Thursday could be tougher than anticipated, as running back Aaron Jones and tight end Luke Musgrave will not play at Detroit. They’re fifth and second, respectively, on the Packers in receptions this season. But Love has leaned heavily on Doubs, Jayden Reed, Christian Watson and Dontayvion Wicks lately, and AJ Dillon has had some effective games in place of Jones, even if it has been inconsistent. Teams have had more success throwing against the Lions this season than running, with a few exceptions. Doubs and Reed seemed to be the most effective against the Lions last time around, but keep an eye out for Wicks, who had only one target in the first meeting but has emerged as a big-play threat since then.

Washington Commanders
2023 · 4-7-0
Dallas Cowboys
2023 · 7-3-0
  • WHERE: AT&T Stadium (Arlington, Texas)
  • WHEN: 4:30 p.m. ET | CBS

  1. Struggling Commanders badly need an upset to turn the tide. Washington has lost four of five games and seven of the past nine, but this past Sunday’s loss to the Giants and undrafted rookie QB Tommy DeVito have cranked up the heat on Ron Rivera and his staff. The Commanders remain in the playoff race for now, but a loss Thursday might cook their goose. Sam Howell has at times looked like a future franchise QB under new coordinator Eric Bieniemy, but Howell also has been sacked three or more times in all but one game -- that sound you hear is Micah Parsons and the Dallas pass rush licking its chops -- and has three- and four-INT games this season. Parsons, who tied his career high with 2.5 sacks against the Panthers in Week 11, helped the Cowboys total seven against Carolina. Howell has 18 TD passes and has 290 or more passing yards in six games, but the Cowboys’ pass defense, led by CB DaRon Bland and his record-tying four pick-sixes, really only has struggled against the 49ers this season, holding every other opponent to 219 or fewer pass yards. If Rivera and Washington have designs on pulling the upset, they’ll need to move the ball through the air but cut back on the volume of negative plays that always seem to come with their pass game.
  2. Dak Prescott, CeeDee Lamb are hot, but can they keep it up? Prescott to Lamb has been one of the NFL’s best passing combinations this season, but especially of late. Even with Carolina holding Lamb to six catches for 38 yards, he has 47 receptions for 655 yards (13.9-yard average) and four TDs in his past five games. Like Lamb, Prescott also has been on a tear since the 49ers loss in Week 5, completing 70.8% of his passes for 1,543 yards, 14 TDs and only two picks. He’s also run for 96 yards and two scores in that span. Washington’s pass defense has struggled lately, but the issues are nothing new as they have allowed 258.5 pass yards per game (30th best) this season. Even with nine sacks vs. the Giants, the Commanders let DeVito tear them up for stretches. They’ve had to mix and match in the secondary, but most combinations have not worked great. If there’s solace, it’s that Prescott struggled against Washington’s defense in Week 18 last season in what was supposed to be a must-win game for Dallas, with playoff seeding on the line.

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San Francisco 49ers
2023 · 7-3-0
Seattle Seahawks
2023 · 6-4-0
  • WHERE: Lumen Field (Seattle)
  • WHEN: 8:20 p.m. ET | NBC, Telemundo

  1. Bounce-back 49ers know how important this game is. The 49ers can’t technically cough up the division lead with a loss at Seattle, but the two teams would have the same record heading into the final stretch of the season, with the rematch at Levi's Stadium right around the corner in Week 14. Just as important as the division race for the 49ers is the conference standings. With Philly beating the Chiefs on Monday, the Eagles move to 9-1 -- a full two wins over San Fran currently. But with a win Thursday, the 49ers would go into their Week 13 meeting with the Eagles with a chance to catch up quickly in the race for the NFC’s No. 1 overall seed and the all-important bye that comes with it. The 49ers dominated the Seahawks in their three meetings last season (including the wild-card game), outsourcing Seattle 89-43 in the three contests. The 49ers lost three straight games before their bye but have looked dominant since. Brock Purdy has been nearly perfect the past two games with a healthy cast of playmakers, and the 49ers’ defense has regained its mojo. The banged-up Seahawks will have to be on point to take them down.
  2. Geno Smith on track to play despite elbow injury. Smith left Sunday’s loss to the Rams with an elbow/triceps injury on his throwing arm. The Seahawks led by nine when Smith exited the game, but backup QB Drew Lock and Seattle’s defense couldn’t hold it. When Smith re-entered for the final two-minute drill, the Seahawks trailed 17-16. Smith got Seattle into field-goal range, but Jason Myers missed his field goal try at the buzzer. Although Smith, who is questionable for Thursday, hasn’t had the same kind of season he did a year ago, he remains the Seahawks’ best hope to win. They lean pretty hard on their top three receivers -- DK Metcalf, Tyler Lockett and rookie Jaxon Smith-Njigba -- in the passing game and could find some holes in the Niners’ secondary, if the pass protection holds up. The 49ers lost star safety Talanoa Hufanga to a season-ending knee injury in Week 11. His replacement, rookie Ji'Ayir Brown, had a fourth-down interception last week but can expect to be tested. Another way the Seahawks can try to slow down the rush of Nick Bosa, Chase Young and Co. is by running the ball heavily. That’s normally a staple of their offense, although the injury to Kenneth Walker III (oblique; doubtful) has left rookie Zach Charbonnet has the one true workhorse back.