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December 2, 2004 Edition > Section:  Sports

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Thanksgiving Preview: Peyton Manning and Lots of Turkey

November 24, 2004

Football on Thanksgiving Day is a tradition as old as the NFL itself. It started back in 1920, when Fritz Pollard, the first black quarterback in league history led his Akron Pros to a 7-0 victory over Jim Thorpeís Canton Bulldogs. Neither of those early teams survives today, but the tradition of Thanksgiving football is going strong, and fans everywhere have two games for their viewing pleasure this year.

The early game matches the Detroit Lions against the Indianapolis Colts, and all eyes will be on quarterback Peyton Manning. Heís in the midst of one of the best seasons ever for an NFL quarterback. In 10 games this year he has thrown for 2960 yards and 35 touchdown passes. Manning is threatening to break Dan Marinoís records in both categories (5084 yards and 48 TDs).

In order to amass that many yards, you need two things. Of course, you have to be an exceptionally talented passer. Accuracy, arm-strength, and the ability to stand in the pocket under pressure are crucial attributes and Manning has them all. But youíve also got to have a defense that gives up a lot of points, and unfortunately Manning has that, too. Once a team jumps out to a big lead, theyíre going to stop throwing the ball and work on melting the clock. Thatís not something that the Colts have done very often. Their defense has allowed 23 points per game and ranks 31st in yards allowed, so Manning is usually still throwing the ball in the second half.

It doesnít hurt to have a great receiver like Marvin Harrison to throw to, but one of the biggest advantages Manning has had this season is the great blocking of his offensive line. In ten games, heís only been sacked six times, and itís not because other teams havenít tried to get pressure on him. When you give a quarterback with Manningís talent time to throw from the pocket, heís going to make big plays down the field. The extraordinary protection also means heís been able to avoid injury.

Marino had the same advantage early in his career, when he averaged less than one sack per game. And like Manning, Marino has been knocked for not winning a Super Bowl. But Peyton Manning may get that monkey off his back this year because he has one thing Marino never had; a dominant running back. Edgerrin James leads the AFC with 1081 rushing yards and makes it impossible for defenses to devote all of their efforts towards containing the Indy passing attack. 

Itís that balance that makes the Colts offense so productive. If their defense can continue to play as well as they have the last few weeks, this might be the year that Manning finally gets his team to the big game.

You canít say the same things about the Lions, whose 4-6 record makes it unlikely that theyíll even make the playoffs. Early optimism has been tempered by a four-game losing streak. Third-year quarterback Joey Harrington has played poorly in recent weeks after showing some signs that he was on the verge of emerging as a star. The West Coast style of offense that the Lions play relies on Harrington to make good decisions and be an accurate passer. When heís not doing those things, the offense grinds to a halt.

The Lions have a pair of talented rookies, but both have been slowed by ankle injuries this year. Wide receiver Roy Williams has made some remarkable catches, but hasnít been healthy enough to be a major factor since late September. Running back Kevin Jones had his first 100-yard rushing game last week against the Vikings. The coaching staff is hopeful that as heís able to carry the ball more often, the running game will help take some of the pressure off of Harringtonís shoulders.

Detroitís challenge on Thursday will be keeping Peyton Manning from going wild. The Lions lead the NFC with 29 sacks, and theyíll have to get consistent pressure on the Colts quarterback if they are going to have a chance to win. Absent that, the Detroit secondary just isnít good enough to keep Manning from taking another big step towards breaking Dan Marinoís records.


Tryptophan is an amino acid in turkey that is a natural sedative, and if that doesnít have you napping by mid-afternoon the late game might do the trick. The Dallas Cowboys and Chicago Bears have combined for 12 NFL championships, but neither has been very interesting to watch this season.

The Bears have won some games this year because of a solid defense that has job of forced turnovers and scored points. The offense has been a disaster as the team has shuffled itís way through three inexperienced quarterbacks in search of a leader. Rookie Craig Krenzel is the starter now, and while the team has gone 3-1 since he took over, he has played horribly. As you might expect from a player who started the season as the third man on the depth chart, Krenzel has been indecisive in the pocket, forced throws into coverage, and unable to find any sort of rhythm.

Heíll face off against another rookie quarterback in Dallas, Drew Henson, who will be making his first NFL start with just two days of preparation. Cowboysí starter Vinny Testaverde hasnít played poorly, but a shoulder injury will keep him out of the lineup. Henson is going to have a hard time scoring points against an aggressive Bears defense. It doesnít help that the offensive line has struggled and past-prime running back Eddie George is averaging a paltry 3.3 yards per carry.

I wish I could tell you that there are some good young players to watch in this game but there simply arenít. Itís a matchup of the Cowboys, who have lost six of their last seven games, and the Bears, who rank dead last in offense. There hasnít been a scoreless tie in the NFL since 1943, so even that point of interest seems unlikely. 

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