It’s a tradition unlike any other: the Thanksgiving Classic in Dallas. The only other team who gets to play on this day every single year is the Detroit Lions, whose biggest accomplishment so far this season was tying with the Steelers two weeks ago to avoid becoming the first team in history to go 0-17.
The Cowboys, by sharp contrast, have a lot to be thankful for this year. Dak Prescott is back and, despite having two rough games in the last three weeks, is playing as well as he was before his injury. Dan Quinn’s presence has stabilized a defense that was horrid just a year ago. Micah Parsons is a legitimate difference-maker, and the Cowboys wouldn’t have landed him if not for the Panthers and Broncos taking the top two corners in the draft earlier this year.
Of course, the biggest thing to be thankful for this year is a good football team. At 7-3, the Cowboys hold the third-best record in the conference and are in position to make a run at the number one seed before season’s end. On top of that, they’re expected to get left tackle Tyron Smith back for the Thanksgiving game against the Raiders, while DeMarcus Lawrence will be activated from the injured reserve with the expectation of returning next week in New Orleans.
It’s also expected that Dallas will get Amari Cooper back for that game, and the thought of getting reinforcements must be an enticing idea for the Cowboys after dropping two of their last three in disappointing fashion. But first, they have to take care of the Raiders on a short week.
Las Vegas has had quite the year. Entering their fourth season since bringing back Jon Gruden, the team finally started to show signs of progress. Derek Carr was leading an efficient offense and Gus Bradley - Quinn’s predecessor in Seattle - had rejuvenated the defense. The Raiders jumped out to an impressive 3-0 start and looked to be playoff contenders.
Then things took a sudden turn. After dropping two straight games, they parted ways with Gruden over a scandal involving emails. Special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia, who spent five years in Dallas before leaving for the Raiders, was named the interim head coach. Later on, the Raiders had to cut both of their first-round picks from last year, receiver Henry Ruggs and cornerback Damon Arnette, for different off-field incidents.
Credit belongs to Bisaccia, as the Raiders won their first two games under his leadership to go into their bye week at 5-2. But things seem to have caught up with them, as the Raiders haven’t won since then. They’ve lost by multiple scores to the Giants, Chiefs, and Bengals to find themselves on a three-game losing streak as they travel to AT&T Stadium.
When they arrive, they’ll find a talented Cowboys team that’s properly angry after a letdown of a performance against the Chiefs. Sure, beating Patrick Mahomes in Arrowhead is a tall task, but the Cowboys had plenty of opportunities to get it done and they dropped the ball (quite literally for some). They know that, too. This game has a similar feeling to how the Cowboys felt when they hosted the Falcons after the Broncos loss.
It’s unlikely that the Cowboys will win by 40 points again, but they’re facing a struggling team at home and looking to make a statement again. That’s a bad combination of circumstances for a Raiders team that’s still trying to find answers on both offense and defense. Losing Ruggs, a speedster who stretched the field vertically, has made things harder on guys like Bryan Edwards, Hunter Renfrow, and tight end Darren Waller. Las Vegas signed DeSean Jackson to fill the role, but he’s seen just one target in 25 snaps in the two games he’s been there.
After getting off to such a hot start, Carr and this offense has ground to a halt. They’ve failed to score more than 16 points each of the last three weeks, and Carr has been especially bad in those games. It’s coincided with a thorough breakdown in pass protection for the Raiders, furthering along a narrative that’s quietly followed him around the past few years.
Earlier this year, #Chargers Joey Bosa said: "We knew once we hit him a few times, he really gets shook. He was pretty much curling into a ball. We know once you get pressure on him, he kind of shuts down."— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) November 17, 2021
In 2018, a #Rams defender said: "I think he’s scared to take shots."
Now they face a Dallas defense whose pass rush is picking up steam even without Lawrence, Randy Gregory, and Neville Gallimore. Micah Parsons has blossomed into a legitimate pass rushing threat from anywhere on the field, so he’ll be looking to get home against Carr and continue the trend of an effective pass rush rattling the Raiders quarterback.
The Raiders have their own stout pass rush, though, between Maxx Crosby and Yannick Ngakoue. As a team, they rank eighth in pass rush win rate and 12th in sacks. In other words, it’s a great time for Smith to get back to protecting Prescott’s blind side. It’s also good for the Cowboys that Vegas has generally struggled to stop offenses on plays where they don’t get pressure. Quinn’s history with Bradley ought to help when it comes to offensive game-planning this week, as the Raiders defensive coordinator hasn’t reinvented his defense the way his Cowboys counterpart has.
That doesn’t mean this will be a cake walk, of course. The Raiders are tired of losing and have to be feeling desperate with the thought of missing out on the postseason after a 5-2 start. This isn’t like the Falcons team Dallas faced two weeks ago. The Cowboys will have to work hard for this one, and they’ll do it on a short week. But if they can channel their anger from Kansas City and play up to their standards, this should be another win for America’s Team.