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Thanksgiving separates NFL contenders from pretenders

Brent Musburger
VSiN managing editor

November 24, 2017 12:38 PM

LAS VEGAS--Thanksgiving signals the dropping of the NFL’s championship gauntlet. Or in the case of the Dallas Cowboys and several other pretenders, the dropping of the phrase “search for a new head coach” into the headlines.

Let’s first focus on the Super Bowl push, and we begin in Los Angeles. Sunday’s featured attraction has the Rams hosting the New Orleans Saints. Based on points per game, this matchup features the most improved offensive team in the league vs. the most improved defensive team.

A year ago the pathetic Rams offense averaged only 14 points. Even with their loss last week to Minnesota, they have more than doubled that to 30 points, moving from last to first in the NFL. Obviously the hiring of young coach Sean McVay and the improvement of quarterback Jared Goff are the biggest reasons. But you can’t overlook the signings of left tackle Andrew Whitworth from the Bengals and center John Sullivan from the Redskins. Both have solidified the offensive line.

But be careful before you jump all over the Rams and lay the 2½ points in this game, because they will be without wide receiver Robert Woods. They will have to rely on Sammy Watkins to be the deep threat – not to mention contributions from talented rookie Cooper Kupp from Eastern Washington and a steady dose of running back Todd Gurley.

The Saints’ improvement on defense may be hurt dramatically by injuries this week. Their outstanding first-round draft choice – Marcus Lattimore from Ohio State – has been a candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year. But both he and fellow cornerback Ken Crawley were conspicuous by their absences from practice this week. It was obvious that Kirk Cousins and the Washington Redskins went on an offensive tear after Lattimore went out with his ankle injury Sunday. Two other injured defensive players – linebacker A.J. Klein and safety Kenny Vaccaro – have been limited by injuries, but they have been practicing.

The Saints have had five different defensive coordinators since 2008, but current coordinator Dennis Allen is doing an excellent job. A year ago they were allowing 28 points a game. They have reduced that to 20 even after they were blown out in their first two games. That was before they went on their eight-game winning streak.

Looking forward to December, the Saints and Rams will have their hands full. New Orleans has two games left with Atlanta and one against Carolina. Los Angeles still has a home date vs.Philadelphia and a visit to Seattle.

Moving slightly south of the Coliseum, we offer a tip of the fedora to the Los Angeles Chargers. Their playoff hopes are absolutely soaring after demolishing the Cowboys 28-6 on Thursday. Since losing their first four games, the Chargers have won five of their last seven. They are a major contender for a wild-card spot and maybe even a divisional championship if the Kansas City Chiefs don’t get out of their funk.

When healthy, Keenan Allen is becoming a top receiver choice in your fantasy league. He racked up 11 catches from Philip Rivers for 172 yards on Thursday. The only problem for this third-round draft choice out of Cal has been staying on the field. The same goes for first-round draft choice Mike Williams, who didn’t return Thursday after going out with a knee injury. And kicker Nick Novak’s bad back knocked him out of the game. The Chargers wound up missing three extra points, but like the Eagles last weekend, the Cowboys were not equipped to capitalize.

Let’s go up the coast to San Francisco. The 49ers come off their bye to host the injury-riddled Seattle Seahawks, who are a 6½-point favorite. Newly acquired Jimmy Garoppolo waits in the wings, so for now C.J. Beathard remains the Niners’ quarterback after their lone win of the season over the New York Giants. There is certainly a little more interest in this game since the 49ers broke their schneid.

On the other side of the bay, the reeling Oakland Raiders are a five-point underdog hosting the Denver Broncos. Both teams have undergone major changes this week. The Raiders fired defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. and elevated John Pagano. The Broncos have turned to young quarterback Paxton Lynch after they dumped offensive coordinator Mike McCoy and promoted Bill Musgrave. Remember, Musgrave was the offensive coordinator in Oakland before Jack Del Rio replaced him with Todd Downing.

There is no doubt that both the Raiders and Broncos have been major disappointments in the AFC West, and that’s why both Vance Joseph and Del Rio are on the clock. In my opinion it isn’tlikely that John Elway will change head coaches after only one season, but it has been a horrible stretch for Joseph and the Broncos. In Oakland, Del Rio is certainly not safe, not when that team was supposed to contend for the AFC West title.

Del Rio and Joseph might yet survive into the new year. The NFL coaches who will not be having a merry Christmas include the Browns’ Hue Jackson, the Bengals’ Marvin Lewis, the Colts’ Chuck Pagano, the Giants’ Ben McAdoo, the Bears’ John Fox, the Buccaneers’ Dirk Koetter and the Cardinals’ Bruce Arians.

Del Rio badly needs wins down the stretch. So do the Jets’ Todd Bowles, the Titans’ Mike Mularkey, the Texans’ Bill O’Brien and, yes, I’m including the Cowboys’ Jason Garrett.

That’s about a third of the league’s coaches who are just hoping to make it through the holidays. With that many going away or on the bubble, you might wonder if there are enough good coaches to go around. But think back to this time last year. Had you considered McVay a viable candidate? You could say that the job this 31-year-old has done turning around the Rams has gotten a lot of older coaches in trouble this year.

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