Thanksgiving has belonged to the NFL since 1920, and turkey wouldn’t quite taste the same without a muted television flashing images of the Detroit Lions getting scored on somewhere in the background. This year’s holiday brought a three-course meal to accompany your nine-courser, doling out heaping helping of Bears-Lions, Washington-Cowboys, and Falcons-Saints.
Injuries to players like Mitchell Trubisky, Marvin Jones, and Kerryon Johnson robbed the early game in Detroit of three offensive powerhouses. A devastating Alex Smith broken leg robbed Washington of its starting quarterback and forced Colt McCoy into a starring role. And a fiery rivalry between 2017 playoff teams lost some of its heat thanks to the Saints’ borderline-absurd dominance this fall and the Falcons’ fall from contender to sub-.500 franchise.
But while this year’s Thanksgiving slate looked worse for the wear on paper, it still offered opportunities for players to shine while America digests. Here are nine winners and seven losers from Thursday:
Saints 31, Falcons 17
Winner: The Drew Brees for MVP campaign
Brees threw an interception (on a play with more than enough contact to deserve a pass interference penalty), but that was his only mistake of the night. He finished with 15 completions on 22 attempts for 171 yards, four touchdowns, and one interception.
To put in perspective how great his 2018 season has been, his 115.3 passer rating Thursday actually lowered his season rating from the 126.9 he had entering the game. Brees also dropped his season completion percentage by only connecting on 68.2 percent of his passes.
There are a lot of players putting up gaudy stats in 2018, but Brees’ case as the league’s MVP is getting harder and harder to deny.
Winner: Undrafted receivers for the Saints
Michael Thomas is a bona fide No. 1 receiver, but injuries have diced up the rest of the Saints’ wide receiving depth. Thankfully for New Orleans, Brees can make do with just about anyone at receiver. Against the Falcons, he threw touchdown passes to four different players who recently joined the NFL as undrafted free agents:
Update: #Saints QB Drew Brees' 4 TD passes so far have all gone to UDFAs:— Deuce Windham (@RevDeuceWindham) November 23, 2018
1st: Tommylee Lewis
2nd: Austin Carr
3rd: Dan Arnold
4th: Keith Kirkwood
Arnold and Kirkwood each got their first career touchdown receptions Thursday, while Lewis and Carr each got their second. It really might not matter who plays receiver for the Saints.
Loser: The Falcons’ red zone offense
It looked like a shootout was coming during Atlanta’s first drive of the game. The Falcons cruised through the Saints defense all the way inside the 10-yard line, but wound up with zero points when Marcus Williams stripped Matt Ryan on a sack. It was a precursor of things to come.
The Falcons’ next drive started in New Orleans territory and got to the 7-yard line, but ended with a field goal.
It looked like Atlanta would get some points just before halftime, but the second the Falcons crossed that cursed 20-yard line...
Julio Jones fumbled and the Saints wound out the remaining clock in the first half.
Finally, the Falcons got a red zone touchdown near the end of the third quarter when Ryan found Calvin Ridley in the back of the end zone on a fourth down. But two drives later, Ridley was a yard away from getting his second touchdown and fumbled near the goal line.
All those points left on the field meant the Falcons never had much of a chance of keeping up.
Loser: Atlanta’s running game
Maybe the Falcons could’ve done more in the red zone if there was some semblance of balance to their offense. But Atlanta essentially had to give up on running the ball because:
- They were behind early
- They didn’t have a chance at rushing successfully, anyway
Tevin Coleman finished with 6 yards on eight attempts and Ito Smith had 0 yards on four attempts. The only Falcons player who had decent rushing stats was Matt Ryan, who had 16 yards on a pair of scrambles.
The Saints have been one of the toughest teams in the NFL to run against this season. They put together a shutdown performance against the run Thursday and it kept the Falcons offense off-balance all night.
Winner: Potato salad
Everyone has Thanksgiving opinions, but potato salad doesn’t get much love (justifiably so, in my opinion). Rodney Harrison came to the rescue by calling potato salad his favorite part of a Thanksgiving meal.
Potato salad?! Uh ... to each their own, I guess.
Cowboys 31, Washington 23
Winner: Donations to the Salvation Army
Two years ago, Ezekiel Elliott channeled Terrell Owens when he celebrated a touchdown by jumping in the Salvation Army kettle that sits in the Dallas Cowboys’ end zone during the holiday season. He was flagged for the celebration, so this time, he tried something different. On the Cowboys’ first drive, Elliott made a sick cut to take the ball 16 yards to the house and to top it off, he dropped $21 — to match his jersey number — into the bucket:
In the fourth quarter, Dak Prescott turned a sack into a zig-zagging touchdown run to pad the Cowboys’ lead. After he scored, Elliott picked Prescott up and put him in the kettle. Apparently Prescott is considered a prop, because that move earned Dallas a 15-yard penalty:
Everything is awesome! pic.twitter.com/TchXzGyhRh— Blogging The Boys (@BloggingTheBoys) November 23, 2018
Washington used the good field position to answer with a touchdown drive of its own.
In 2016, Elliott’s celebration led to a huge spike in donations to the Salvation Army. Hopefully the same thing happens this time around:
Loser: Dak Prescott got turned into a sandwich
The Cowboys were on the cusp of scoring near the goal line when Dak Prescott took a painful sack from Ryan Kerrigan and Preston Smith. Prescott was running away from Kerrigan and got blindsided by Smith as he turned around.
Someone get Dak Prescott some ice and a turkey leg ASAP.
Winner: Trey Quinn was Mr. Relevant
Trey Quinn was the last pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, making this year’s Mr. Irrelevant, but he came up in a big way against the Cowboys. Early in the third quarter, Quinn had a 30-yard punt return to set Washington up at the Cowboys’ 25-yard line.
Three plays later, Quinn caught a 10-yard touchdown pass from Colt McCoy to give Washington a 13-10 lead — the first touchdown of Quinn’s career.
Trey Quinn TD - Runs the shallow cross well. Battles with his right arm for leverage, straightens his route vertical for a fraction to hold up the DB and create separation as he broke across the middle. Nice adjustment back to the ball too #Redskins pic.twitter.com/RZEM00E8OQ— Mark Bullock (@MarkBullockNFL) November 22, 2018
Loser: Markelle Fultz gets trolled
The Sixers’ No. 1 pick in the 2017 draft has been dealing with a hitchy jump shot for more than a year. His unorthodox free-throw shooting in particular has gone viral.
Amari Cooper decided to have a little fun at Fultz’s expense after his first touchdown of the game:
Now watch Fultz, who would like a fresh start, get traded to the Mavs. But it seems like he took Cooper’s celebration well:
Winner: Amari Cooper breaks out
Amari Cooper’s 2018 season has been riddled with inconsistency, but he showcased his skills on Thanksgiving. Cooper had a 40-yard touchdown catch in the third quarter to put Dallas ahead 17-13.
This is one hell of a route by Amari Cooper, set up Dunbar with the outside release and sharp cut back inside. Dunbar fell over and Cooper ran away with no safety in the middle of the field #Redskins pic.twitter.com/5dhN4xsdzO— Mark Bullock (@MarkBullockNFL) November 22, 2018
Cooper came through in the clutch again for the Cowboys with a 90-yard run and catch touchdown toward the end of the third quarter.
According to NFL Research, that was the longest reception of Cooper’s career and the longest completion in Dak Prescott’s career.
Cooper finished with eight catches for 180 yards and the two touchdowns.
Loser: Colt McCoy giving the ball away
Colt McCoy threw three interceptions in his first game as a starter this season. The last one essentially ended Washington’s chance to come back and win the game.
McCoy ended up with two touchdowns and threw for 268 yards. Really, he was fine except for the turnovers ... but they ended up killing drives and were a huge reason Washington lost.
We’ll see if McCoy can bounce back in two weeks against the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday Night Football.
Bears 23, Lions 16
Winner: The Bears defense’s Motown celebration
This came right after Kyle Fuller picked off Matthew Stafford with just over a minute left in the game. It’s easily the best of the year. By far.
Winner: Former linebacker Nick Bellore’s fourth career catch bailed out the Lions
Detroit decided to go for it on fourth-and-inches deep in Chicago territory, and it looked like a massive mistake when Matthew Stafford’s play-action pass caromed off a defender at the line of scrimmage.
Enter Bellore, the veteran linebacker-turned-fullback, who happened to be the right man in the right place to make all the difference.
The rarely used Bellore dove underneath Stafford’s tipped pass to keep Detroit’s drive alive, making just his second catch of the season and the fourth catch of his career in the process. Two plays later, LeGarrette Blount would break a 0-0 tie by crashing into the end zone and adding a little excitement to what had been a fairly unwatchable game.
Loser: Anyone who left the Thanksgiving table early to watch this game.
Here’s how Thursday’s first game started:
Winner: Chase Daniel was pretty good!
He wasn’t the dynamo Mitchell Trubisky was when he chewed up the Lions’ defense 11 days earlier, but Daniel was an entirety competent starter Thursday. A 230-yard, two touchdown performance served as proof he was actually worth the eight-figure contracts he’d signed to be a backup in both Kansas City and Philadelphia.
But Daniel also took his share of damage in his third career start. He drew a pair of 15-yard personal fouls for late hits or roughing penalties and generally spent his time in the pocket getting knocked around like the Vandal Empire in 533. He finished his day with FOUR sacks and is probably a little relieved Mitchell Trubisky is slated to return next week.
Loser: Michael Roberts’ quest to kill the Lions
The Lions faced third-and-1 from the Chicago 2-yard line when Matthew Stafford dropped back and rifled a pass up the middle to open tight end Michael Roberts. Roberts, uh, did this:
And things somehow got worse from there! Two drives later, a pass intended for Roberts would land in Eddie Jackson’s hands, resulting in a tie-breaking pick-six. When the Lions drove deep into Chicago territory with a chance to tie the game, the burly tight end couldn’t get on the same page with Stafford, leading to a Kyle Fuller interception that effectively ended this game.