Can the Cowboys turn things around quickly and hold off the Chargers?
The Dallas Cowboys don't have a lot time to let their most recent crushing loss them down as they host the Los Angeles Chargers on Thanksgiving. It's a Dallas tradition to be the middle game on this day while it's the first Thanksgiving game for Los Angeles since 1969 when the Chargers were a member of the AFL. The two squads have similar records (Dallas 5-5, Los Angeles 4-6) but are coming into this one with completely different levels of momentum.
Dallas has lost two straight, including getting blown out at home by Philadelphia this past Sunday, and is now towards the middle of the pack in the playoff race. The Cowboys’ offense just doesn't have the same bite without Ezekiel Elliott as the unit has put up less than 300 yards in their last two contests. Combine that with a defense that has been very leaky as of late and you have a team that's been outscored 64-16 in its last two games. We'll see if the quick turnaround helps All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith return because the offensive line has struggled terribly without him. Dallas already knows that linebacker Sean Lee (hamstring) will miss another game, while Anthony Hitchens’ status is unknown after he suffered a groin injury last week.
Los Angeles has won four of its last six to put the Chargers back in the playoff race, especially in what has become a watered-down AFC West. They had a rare easy victory last week, forcing six turnovers in beating the Bills 54-24 at home. Keenan Allen (above, right) and Melvin Gordon gave Philip Rivers plenty of support in the rout. My one concern here is that this will be the Chargers’ fifth road game over their last seven contests. The defense continues to be a strength for even with starting cornerback Jason Verrett lost for the season due to injury. Los Angeles also has been fortunate in catching some of the teams they have played at the right time, such as last week when the Chargers faced Buffalo quarterback Nathan Peterman, who was making his first-ever NFL start. They picked off the rookie five times in the first half, jumping out to a 37-7 lead that basically put the game out of reach.
Los Angeles at Dallas
Kickoff: Thursday, Nov. 23 at 4:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Dallas -1
Three Things to Watch
As a handicapper, there are several things to consider in this matchup. Los Angeles is playing a fifth road game since early October and at some point the travel has to get to the Chargers, especially since they have such a quick turnaround from a Sunday afternoon game. Preparation gets sped up in this situation, especially as the road team. Dallas gets to stay at home, which is a huge advantage, and the Cowboys already know how Thanksgiving games go in terms of preparation and dealing with the other factors and/or distractions that come with playing on the holiday. The other question that has been raised is if the team is distracted at all by all the off-the-field drama related to Jerry Jones and the league office. But considering the Cowboys have already had to deal with the Ezekiel Elliott suspension saga, I don’t think this latest soap opera will affect them any differently.
2. No. 1 receivers
Keenan Allen and Dez Bryant have both been disappointments this season although Allen is coming off of a monster game. He had 12 catches on 13 targets for 159 yards (second-highest total in his career) and two touchdowns last week against Buffalo. What's funny is that he had 11 total targets the three games prior so we'll see if he can keep that momentum going against a Dallas secondary that can be beaten. Bryant was busy against the Eagles (14 targets), but they did a good job of not allowing him too many yards after the catch (finished with 63 on eight receptions). He's been banged up all season long and has not been practicing much. With the lack of a solid running game, Bryant has to step up more and be the No. 1 receiver everyone knows he can be. Casey Hayward has been fantastic for the Chargers and is coming off of a two-interception game against the Bills.
3. Read option success
Dallas' offensive line has not been the same without starting left tackle Tyron Smith, who has missed the past two games because of a groin injury. His availability is up in the air for this one so that could mean quarterback Dak Prescott goes on the run once again. The Cowboys have done a good job scheming up Prescott in read-option plays that work well. He's averaging 7.3 yards per carry so maybe they turn to this with aggressive defensive linemen Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram on the other side. Dallas actually managed to run for 112 yards (on 27 carries) against Philadelphia, just the second time the Eagles had allowed a team to do that. (They are first in the NFL against the run at 71.0 ypg). Alfred Morris did most of the damage (91 yards on 17 carries), so he’s got some confidence entering this matchup against the NFL’s worst rushing defense. Even though Los Angeles won 54-24 last week, the Chargers still gave up 173 yards on the ground to Buffalo, who averaged nearly eight yards per carry.
I'm going to regret this later, but I think Dallas gets the win on Thanksgiving. The Cowboys being able to stay home with a quick turnaround will help. They also were embarrassed on national television against the Eagles and some said they even quit. It's amazing how something like that will motivate a team the following game. It's always scary to go against Philip Rivers especially in a close, low-scoring game, but I think the home team sends their fans home happy to feast.
Prediction: Cowboys 20, Chargers 17
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.