The NFL schedules the three Thanksgiving games in April. Thanksgiving falls in Week 13 this season.
A lot can happen between those dates. We thought teams like the Chicago Bears and Atlanta Falcons would be playoff contenders back when the schedule came out. We also wondered why the Buffalo Bills would be given such a prime stage, but it turns out they have the third-best record in the AFC.
Here’s a look at this week’s playoff projection, our look at how we think the bracket will look once everything is settled at the end of the regular season, followed by a breakdown of how the three Thanksgiving games could affect the postseason picture:
There’s some intrigue on Thanksgiving, though not much with the first game ...
Chicago Bears at Detroit Lions, 12:30 p.m. ET, Fox
The Bears won the 2018 NFC North title. The Lions were at least somewhat interesting coming into the season. Now this is just a bland appetizer between two teams with losing records.
The 3-7-1 Lions are practically out of the running, and so are the 5-6 Bears. Technically the Bears could get back into the playoff race, but you have to squint really hard to see it. The Bears would likely need to win out. Mostly, you’ll just get to hear three hours of analysis of what went wrong for these teams.
Buffalo Bills at Dallas Cowboys, 4:30 p.m. ET, CBS
This is the most meaningful of the three Thanksgiving games, in terms of both teams being alive for playoff spots.
The Bills are the most comfortable of the two teams. At 8-3, in a soft AFC, they seem like a lock for the top wild-card spot and the No. 5 seed. Still, Buffalo’s remaining games are at Cowboys, vs. Ravens, at Steelers, at Patriots, vs. Jets, so there are probably some losses coming. A win at Dallas would remove any remaining doubt about their playoff standing.
The Cowboys need to start winning games. They’re 6-5, owner Jerry Jones is getting restless, and the only positive for Dallas in the NFC East race is that the 5-6 Eagles can’t get it together either. The Eagles have a much easier remaining schedule and the rematch between the teams is in Philly in Week 16. There’s likely no wild-card spot left for the second-place team in the division. The division will likely come down to who wins that Week 16 game (if Philadelphia beats Miami this week or Dallas loses to Buffalo the Eagles clinch the common opponents tiebreaker vs. Dallas, which could come into play). The Cowboys could still open up a two-game lead over Philadelphia before that meeting, but they need to win some games to do that.
New Orleans Saints at Atlanta Falcons, 8:20 p.m. ET, NBC
The one team with the most to gain or lose on Thanksgiving might be the Saints.
While the Bills are pretty safely in and the Cowboys will likely need to beat the Eagles in Week 16 no matter what happens Thursday, the Saints are fighting for a bye with hopes for the NFC’s No. 1 seed. The 49ers lead the NFC at 10-1, the Saints are second at 9-2 and the Packers/Vikings are tied for the NFC North lead at 8-3. The Saints get the 49ers at home next week, and that game might determine the No. 1 seed in the NFC (though the 9-2 Seahawks still factor in). With a loss to the Falcons, the Saints would give the NFC North teams more hope of stealing one of the top two seeds and a bye.
The Falcons have been out of playoff contention for a while, but did beat the Saints a few weeks ago in New Orleans and would love nothing better than to ruin the holiday for their rival.
Here are some other notes from this week’s playoff projection:
• The final spot in the AFC field is a weird, wonderful mess. It looked like the Raiders were a favorite to grab that spot, then they lost 34-3 at the Jets. The Steelers are changing quarterbacks after a win, turning to rookie Devlin Hodges. The Colts might be the best team among the contenders (which is why they get the spot in this week’s projection) but they haven’t shown the inclination to get on a run. And the Titans and Browns are showing signs of life. What a story it would be if the Browns got that spot.
We have are five flawed teams and likely only one playoff spot available for them. Good luck figuring this one out.
• The Vikings’ chances to win the NFC North certainly didn’t go down with the Packers losing at the 49ers last week. Minnesota looks like the better team and they host the rematch between the teams in Week 16. The Packers are looking like a good team that needs to fix a lot of issues before being taken seriously as a Super Bowl contender.
• Even though the Ravens are probably the NFL’s best team right now and also hold the tiebreaker over the Patriots, New England still has the edge for the No. 1 seed. The Ravens are a game behind the Patriots and have some tough games ahead including this week’s showdown against the 49ers. Baltimore will be rooting hard for the Houston Texans to knock off the Patriots on Sunday night.
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