New England has a challenge ahead of them when it comes to handling Detroit's defensive line. The Lions can get edge pressure from the ends, Kyle Vanden Bosch and Cliff Avril and tackle Ndamakong Suh is a disruptive force on the interior. It's going to be important for the Patriots to establish BenJarvus Green-Ellis on the run. And of course even if the pressure comes, Tom Brady is the master of finding receivers on quick, short precision routes that can be used to get rid of the ball quickly. New England is going to face a bigger challenge on defense, where they face a good passing game led by Shaun Hill. The Pats' secondary has not always been up to snuff this year and Hill can get hooked up with Calvin Johnson for some big plays. I expect a good game and for it to at least be closer than the Vegas experts say (NE is favored by a touchdown). The game ultimately swings on two intangibles--how ready will the Pats be on a short week on the road and coming off an emotional win over Indianapolis? That's the triple play of challenges, even for an operation as coolly professional as Bill Belichick's. But on the flip side, Detroit can shoot itself in the foot as well as anyone when it comes to penalties and they can't afford an 8-12 flag game.
The Patriots are going to have to win to keep pace in the East, because I can't fathom any possible way the Bengals are going to beat the Jets. I know New York's been playing with fire lately against mediocre teams but their previous narrow escapes against Detroit, Cleveland and Houston were at least against teams that were still fighting and competing. We can't assume the same is the case with Cincinnati, and while the spate of trash-talking between Terrell Owens and Darrelle Revis this week has juiced up the game a little bit, it's still a big mismatch considering it's being played in the Meadowlands. The Jets win this one going away.
In between the AFC East powers is the customary Thanksgiving feast in Dallas and the Cowboys-Saints promise good late afternoon fare (4:15 ET, Fox). I like the way New Orleans is coming together right now, as Chris Ivory has given them a real running game. Drew Brees has been a little interception-prone this year--we're not talking on the level of Eli Manning or Brett Favre, but he's made more mistakes than during 2009's magic ride. They can't happen today, but the Cowboy secondary is a weak point. Even with Dallas' improved play under Jason Garrett, I think the matchup is right for New Orleans and their own need to win gives them the intangible edge in a 34-27 win.
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Dan Flaherty is the editor of the Sports Notebook Family, published through the Real Clear Sports Blog Network, offering daily commentary in college football ,game analysis in the NFL. and coverage of college basketball. He is the author of The Last New Year's, a book that revisits the historic high points of college football's New Year's Day bowl games.