Let's assume that you are one of the minority of Americans who doesn't understand the game of football. (Possibly this group is a majority, but it certainly sounds like a minority, mainly because football fans are very loud.) Let's assume that, on Sundays, you spend your time worshiping at reputable religious establishments, or going to farmers' markets, or spending time with your wife/husband and children/animals, leaving very little time for the obsessive study of men in tight white pants grasping each other. Most of the time, this isn't a problem; you do not suffer from debilitating social angst and alienation, because the world isn't a Verizon commercial. On Thanksgiving, though, it's unavoidable. Thanksgiving and NFL football are threaded together into the fabric of America. Joe McCarthy had people blacklisted for not watching football on Thanksgiving (probably). So, use this handy guide to at least seem like you know what you're talking about, and then take that turkey and spike it into the ground like a goddam American.
Part One: A Glossary
The Jets: The Jets are the NFL's primary laughingstock. They consist of a coach, Rex Ryan, who is known as a delusional braggart, a defensive mastermind, and a foot-fetishist, basically in that order; a quarterback, Mark Sanchez, so hapless and childlike that Jets fans will start to sob at the sound of his name; a backup quarterback, Tim Tebow, who throws the ball like he's hailing a cab driven by Satan; and two actual good players, Santonio Holmes and Darrelle Revis, who are both out for the season due to injuries and schadenfreude. If any of your family are Jets fans, they will either A) spend Thanksgiving in a state of defiant euphoria not dissimilar to the effects of peyote, babbling on about how "the Jets can still make the playoffs, like, seriously"; B) cry at weird intervals during dinner, and at 8:20 p.m., when the Jets' game against the Patriots is slated to start, announce that it's time for them to turn in, because "they have to get up and shear the sheep tomorrow morning; or C) be really annoying, because Jets fans are annoying.
NFL Red Zone: In football terms, the red zone is the twenty yards before a team's end zone, where teams are most likely to score. But, if you hear the words "NFL Red Zone" at any point during the day, it will be in reference to DirecTV's NFL Red Zone channel, which shows the hottest action from around the league at any given time. As befits something that tries to show the hottest action from around the league at any given time, the NFL Red Zone channel is the football equivalent of drugs and pornography, inciting in fans a visceral, almost erotic sense of excitement. Part of this has to do with the influence of fantasy football, which means that, at unexpected intervals, fans will see a player they "own" scoring a touchdown, driving them into a form of ecstasy somewhere between MDMA and stigmata.
Fantasy Football: You seriously don't know what fantasy football is? God, this'll be hard to explain. OK, so: you, uh, you draft the players in the NFL. Like, you choose a team of guys. And you compete with your friends (or strangers) (or other gambling addicts) to see whose team accounts for the most real-life production on any given weekend. It's like turning reality into a video game. It will make grown men and women into depressive toddlers. It's both horrible and exhilarating.
Defensive Pass Interference: Defensive Pass interference in the NFL means that a defensive player has physically prevented a wide receiver from catching a pass before the wide receiver touched the ball. However, it is often called for absolutely no reason, resulting in excruciating penalties. If you have conservative family members, they might compare it to Obama's tax plan.
Ndamukong Suh: Ndamukong Suh is a defensive tackle for the Detroit Lions, meaning he plays on the line and tries to tackle whoever has the ball. He's commonly regarded as the dirtiest player in the NFL. Last year on Thanksgiving, he stomped on another player's head. If you want to impress your family, talk about how intelligent and misunderstood you think Suh is, and say you think he would've won the Heisman Trophy back in college if it weren't for the institutional bias against defensive players. No, it doesn't matter if you know what the Heisman Trophy is.
Megatron: Megatron is the nickname of Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson, because he plays football like a robot alien and looks to have been made out of two other NFL players sewn together. Fun fact: Megatron is denser than uranium and can be used to make nuclear weapons.
The Wildcat: The Wildcat is a gimmick used on offense, in which a player who is not the quarterback lines up where the quarterback would usually line up and receives the ball from the offensive line, which is called a "snap." The Wildcat sucks.
Roger Goodell: Roger Goodell is the commissioner of the NFL. Known for treating grown-man NFL players as though they were children guzzling Pixie sticks, Goodell's become an inside joke among fans for being a tyrant and a hypocrite. Cool party trick: find a pumpkin leftover from Halloween, draw a face on it in Sharpie, and call it "Roger Goodell's stupid orange head." Then high-five yourself.
America's Team: "America's Team" refers to the Dallas Cowboys, but if any of your family members uses that term to refer to the Dallas Cowboys, you should look into how you can disassociate yourself from them in the eyes of the law and never have to speak to them again.
Uggs: Why would Uggs come up at Thanksgiving in association with football, you ask? Because Tom Brady, the Patriots' quarterback, has an endorsement deal with Uggs. Tom Brady has the honor of being both one of the greatest quarterbacks in the history of football and a total dweeb, although this second point hasn't stopped him from marrying Gisele Bundchen, who looks like how a human would look if that human were designed by Porsche engineers. Tom Brady would like to sell you Ugg man-slippers, and he'd like to do it while taunting you about how much worse at football you are than him, and also how funny he finds your tenuous job situation.
Head Injuries: Unsurprisingly, 250-pound men encasing their skulls in polycarbonate shells and then tossing themselves at each other head-first results in a large number of concussions. Football players, fans, and scientists have only started deciding that this might be a bad thing in the last five years, and now it's a heated topic of discussion among followers of the game, particularly with regard to certain players. One of those players is Redskins' quarterback Robert Griffin III. Watching Robert Griffin III play football is like watching an antelope embarrass a bunch of cheetahs, but, because of his tendency to fight for extra yards and break runs into the open field — because he's a good football player — Griffin puts himself at a higher risk of sustaining a concussion. He's already had one this year. If your football-fan family member in any way expresses the opinion that concussions are unmanly or insignificant, you should probably never speak to them again.
Part Two: Predictions You Can Steal And Pretend Are Your Own
Detroit Lions vs. Houston Texans — Quarterbacks Matt Schaub and Matt Stafford combine for 900 yards passing and two people named Matt, but Houston's staunch defense and actually existent running game overwhelm Detroit, which has made losing on Thanksgiving an integral part of the franchise's personality.
Washington Redskins vs. Dallas Cowboys — Despite the dazzling effectiveness of Robert Griffin III, the Washington defense has holes so large they have their own gravitational pull. Regardless, the Cowboys have made an art out of losing in a spectacular and incomprehensible fashion; their efforts to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory against the comic Cleveland Browns were foiled only by Cleveland's own determination to lose. Expect RGIII, on the biggest stage of his career, to eviscerate the Cowboys, and pray that 'Boys QB Tony Romo entertains us with derps of unprecedented proportions.
New York Jets vs. New England Patriots — As bitter rivals, the Jets and Patriots will both go into this game expecting a spirited competition, with each side delivering their best game. That's not going to happen. The Patriots will win by 40. The Patriots are better than the Jets in every single way, appear to play a completely different sport, and will go as far as they can to shame New York until the final whistle. After the game, Patriots coach Bill Belichick will not smile — he will look as though he's attending his own funeral — and Rex Ryan will thunder around and think about where he'd like to coach after the Jets fire him at the end of the season so that they can hire a coach who will institute an offense focused entirely around Tim Tebow.
Part Three: Five Go-To Phrases That Will Make You Sound Like You Know What You're Talking About
What a read by Stafford/Schaub/Griffin/Romo/Brady/Sanchez. — If you compliment a pass by one of the quarterbacks playing tomorrow, that means nothing; even Mitt Romney knows what it means to pass a football. But complimenting the read: that means you're taking into account the quarterback's wide-receiver selection and understanding of the defense, factoring in all aspects of the game at once. Just be sure to choose the correct quarterback, and make sure it's on a pass that is caught by the receiver and travels 10+ yards in the air. I've arranged the QBs below based on their respective teams and the likelihood that the phrase will apply to one of their throws.
Tom Brady, New England Patriots: 75%
Robert Griffin III, Washington Redskins: 50%
Matt Schaub, Houston Texans: 40%
Matt Stafford, Detroit Lions: 30%
Tony Romo, Dallas Cowboys: 5%
Mark Sanchez, New York Jets: negative 30%
Man, how about the parity in the league this year? — Parity as it applies to the NFL means how fairly each team matches up to each other. The league tries to sell it as a positive quality that means almost any team, and their fans, have a chance of winning any given Sunday; in reality, it means that all the teams suck and play boring, impotent football. This year, teams play boring, impotent football, but most fans have decided that that just means parity is at record levels.
You don't have to establish the run anymore. The NFL's a passing league. — After you say this, just nod and say, "Yeah, yeah" after everything that's said in response.
These Thursday night games are ridiculous! — This year, the NFL has started playing one game every Thursday night in addition to the regular Sunday and Monday action. It's dumb. Part of the charm of football is that all the games save Monday Night Football, which at this point is more established than Congress, take place on Sunday, allowing for one day of wholesale football consumption a week — the Thursday appetizer just feels unnatural and gluttonous. Plus, Thursday's a night when many people actually do something other than sit at home and watch TV, and I resent the NFL trying to change that.
Tebow sucks. — More than anything else, this phrase points to the capacity of football for joining us together into a unified nation.