It’s a tradition that has become part of the American dichotomy over the course of the last six and a half decades — football on Thanksgiving. As soon as the table has been cleared of the turkey, dressing and sweet potato casserole, millions of Americans suffering from oversized bellies will plop down in front of the TV and tune in to the nation’s most popular television product, the NFL.
This year’s Thanksgiving schedule features three matchups that all have significant playoff implications — and yes, that includes the Detroit Lions. What should have been, and still potentially could be the game of the day, is the late night matchup between Pittsburgh and Indianapolis, both sitting at 5-5 and in the thick of their respective divisional races. While Andrew Luck being ruled out because of a concussion has taken some of the luster off of this game, it still holds the utmost importance for both teams.
Pittsburgh at Indianapolis
Kickoff: Thursday, Nov. 24 at 8:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NBC
Spread: Steelers -9
Three Things to Watch
1. No Luck, Big Problem
It couldn't have happened at a worse time, right when the offense was beginning to click and the Colts were showing signs of life, still very much in the AFC South race. But it did happen, and Wednesday afternoon the news everyone was expecting was confirmed: Andrew Luck will not play because of the concussion he sustained in last week’s win against Tennessee.
Scott Tolzien, the sixth-year man from Wisconsin who hasn’t made an NFL start in four seasons (on the nose in fact, last one on Nov. 24, 2013), will be called upon by head coach Chuck Pagano to lead the Colts’ offense against a Pittsburgh team that has hammered Indianapolis (combined score of 96-44) each of the past two seasons.
2. Steelers Need to Find Offensive Mojo
If there ever were a time for Pittsburgh’s offense to come alive, Thanksgiving night would be the perfect setting. Not because the Steelers are 0-4 on Turkey Day since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, but because they’ve only scored 30 points or more once in the last weeks, which is part of the reason they enter this game having lost three in a row.
A season ago, Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh offense couldn't be stopped, but in 2016 the black and gold have been flat-out inconsistent. Playing on just four days’ rest, against one the NFL’s worst defenses provides an interesting conundrum for head coach Mike Tomlin. Last week, Le’Veon Bell had 36 touches (28 carries, 8 receptions) against the Browns, totaling 201 yards and one score. How much does Bell’s use against Cleveland a handful of days ago limit him on such short rest? Or will we see Roethlisberger air it out downfield for Antonio Brown against a banged-up Colts secondary?
3. Short Week Blues
One of the many gripes against the NFL in recent seasons is the lackluster Thursday night games. Many times the teams that play in the Thursday night slot are coming off only four days of rest from their previous contest, not allowing teams to properly prepare for their opponent and not permitting players the necessary time to heal from the game before, hurting the on-field product.
The reception to the pre-weekend football fix has been less than ideal for the NFL, who will have to address this issue in the next collective bargaining agreement, mainly for player safety reasons. While TV ratings have been down across the board this season, Thursday night games have been hit the hardest, a 16 percent decline compared to 2015.
It’s no secret that the NFL brand has taken its lumps the last several seasons with domestic violence, player safety, and team relocation issues. To many, the Shield is as corrupt as our political system, another American entity with too much, overreaching power. As the NFL on-field product shows signs of wear, the league will have to take a long look at how it schedules its games going forward. Don’t be shocked to see in the next CBA the abolishment of the Thursday night game — leaving Thanksgiving as the only pre-weekend game of the NFL week — just as it should be.
Somehow, Indianapolis is going to have to find a way to score points with Scott Tolzien at quarterback, a guy who's only thrown one NFL pass since 2013. While a Colts victory is a long shot, it can be done. For as suspect as Pittsburgh’s offense has been this season, the pass defense has been ever worse — ranking 26th in the league. While the spread would indicate the Steelers to be a heavy favorite, a short week with little time to prepare and heal, the Colts very well could keep this one close, even without Andrew Luck.
Prediction: Pittsburgh 28, Indianapolis 21
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.