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This year’s Thanksgiving NFL slate best in decades

- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 22, 2011

After so many years of bad Detroit Lions teams _ and their games, no matter the week, meaning so little _ all of a sudden that traditional Turkey Day contest in the Motor City is no turkey at all.

Detroit, which is 7-3, hosts the reigning Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers, who are 10-0, to open a tremendously compelling three-game NFL feast Thursday.

The always-polarizing Dallas Cowboys (6-4) host the Miami Dolphins (3-7) next in a matchup between two teams on three-game winning streaks, and the San Francisco 49ers (9-1) are at the Baltimore Ravens (7-3) at night in the Harbaugh Bowl, the first time two brothers will face each other as head coaches in the league.

A case can be made that these are the three most intriguing NFL games of the week. It certainly qualifies as the most enticing Thanksgiving Day lineup in decades.

"That's good. Good for the NFL, good for the fans, good for the people," Minnesota Vikings linebacker Erin Henderson said. "Something entertaining to watch while we all stuff our faces with that good food."

Not convinced this is a special tripleheader?

Consider:

_The six teams are 42-18, which translates to a .700 winning percentage. The last time the holiday's NFL participants boasted that strong a combined win-loss record was 1975 (also .700).

_It's the first Thanksgiving since 1998 _ when there were only two games _ that each club in action won its previous game.

_The Packers are the first unbeaten team to play on the fourth Thursday in November since the 1962 Packers also were 10-0, before losing to Detroit. Including the playoffs, Green Bay has won its last 16 games in a row.

_San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh will match wits with his older brother, Baltimore coach John Harbaugh, in a game for family bragging rights _ and with significant playoff-seeding implications.

_Even the game that was shaping up as a dud, Miami at Dallas, now becomes worth watching, because the Dolphins are the only team in NFL history to go from 0-7 to 3-7 and present a real challenge to the recently resurgent Cowboys and quarterback Tony Romo (who, by the way, is 18-2 with 49 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions for his career in November).

_The lineup includes four teams with at least a share of first place (Green Bay, San Francisco, Baltimore and Dallas), two who can clinch a playoff berth this week (Packers, 49ers), and one with the inside track for a wild-card berth (Detroit).

Give the Lions credit for helping boost the anticipation for this year's Thanksgiving games, because they sure deserve a lot of the blame for the holiday's NFL blandness of late.

"Heck, there even was talk about moving that game out of Detroit _ I thought it was sacrilegious talk _ because Detroit hadn't been very competitive on those days on national TV. So the thinking was, `Hey, let's spread it around to other cities,'" said NFL Network analyst Steve Mariucci, who coached the Lions from 2003-05.

"And I think that talk went away, thankfully, because it needs to be in Detroit forever," he added. "And they're really competitive right now."

Only two other times in the past 50 years _ yes, 50 years! _ did the Lions arrive at Thanksgiving at 7-3, in 1993 and 1969, according to STATS LLC. You have to go all the way back to 1962 to find them with a better record (8-2) at this point in the season.

Each of the past two years, they were 2-8. That was an improvement from 2008, when the Lions were 0-11, on their way to 0-16.

And while Detroit has lost a franchise-record seven consecutive games _ by an average of more than 20 points _ in its annual showcase, there is reason to believe they can make things interesting this time around.

"From what it's been in the past to now, it's different. For us to be doing as good as we're doing right now, it's real exciting. Then we've got Green Bay coming in _ the big, 10-0 Green Bay," said Detroit defensive lineman Corey Williams, who used to play for the Packers.

"It's going to be fun. It's going to be like a mini-Super Bowl, I think, atmosphere-wise," Williams said.

Plus, this particular trio of games gives fans a chance to see some of the sport's most dynamic players: Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, putting together one of the greatest seasons ever by a QB; Detroit receiver Calvin Johnson and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh; San Francisco's can't-be-run-on defense, led by Patrick Willis and Aldon Smith.

For other NFL teams, there's work to be done Thursday, practicing and preparing for their next games. Then they'll go home and turn on the television.

"I might get a little peek at John and Jim going at it. I think that'll be entertaining," St. Louis Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo said. "We'll certainly get the players out of here early, and the coaches as soon as we can after that, and I'll follow."

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AP Sports Writers Dave Campbell in Minneapolis, R.B. Fallstrom in St. Louis, David Ginsburg in Baltimore and Larry Lage and Noah Trister in Detroit contributed to this report.

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Get in touch with Howard Fendrich at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich or hfendrich(at)ap.org

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