A brief history into the NFL’s long-standing tradition of playing football on Thanksgiving; watch the Thursday night triple-header – Bills @ Lions, Giants @ Cowboys and Patriots @ Vikings – live on Sky Sports NFL from 5.30pm, Thursday
Last Updated: 23/11/22 7:00pm
Touchdowns, tradition and roast turkey! Welcome to Thanksgiving in the NFL.
The US holiday and the NFL have a longstanding love affair, with games being played on Turkey Day for over 100 years.
The first instance of American Football being played on Thanksgiving Day itself was way back in 1876 – not long after the sport itself came into being – while the first NFL game came in 1920, the year of the league’s launch.
In that inaugural Thanksgiving clash, the Decatur Staleys faced off against the Chicago Tigers, with the Staleys winning a ‘thriller’ 6-0. Those very same Staleys went on to become the franchise we now know as the Chicago Bears, while the Tigers folded at the end of that season.
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Annual Thanksgiving games have become a tradition ever since, although not necessarily in Chicago. No team in the NFL has played on Turkey Day more than the Detroit Lions, who have featured on the holiday 82 times with a 37-43-2 record over that span. The Dallas Cowboys are next best with 54 appearances and a 31-22-1 return. And the pair will be playing host to the festivities yet again this year.
The Lions (4-6) welcome the Buffalo Bills (7-3) to town for the second time in four days after the Bills used the Lions’ Ford Field as their ‘home’ stadium for Sunday’s win over the Cleveland Browns after a severe snow storm in Buffalo necessitated a move. The Cowboys (7-3), meanwhile, host the New York Giants (7-3) in a crunch NFC East divisional clash.
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Since 2006, a third prime-time match-up has been added to the mix on Thanksgiving Day (with the exception of 2020 when a Covid outbreak forced a postponement to the game between the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers). This year’s festivities are rounded out with the Minnesota Vikings (8-2) hosting the New England Patriots (6-4) in a mouth-watering match-up.
Here we guide you through this year’s triple-header, as well as a brief history to football’s Turkey Day traditions…
Why the Lions and the Cowboys?
Back in 1934, Detroit radio station owner George A Richards had just bought the then-Portsmouth Spartans – founded five years earlier – before deciding to relocate the team to Detroit.
But crowds did not initially flock to watch following the move. College football and baseball tended to dominate the sporting landscape of the time, and the Lions were left playing catch up to the Tigers, who had just won the 1934 American League pennant.
The Lions’ largest crowd early in that season peaked at around 15,000, prompting Richards to stage a game on Thanksgiving in a bid to boost local and national recognition for his team.
The undefeated Bears duly obliged to play out the biggest game of the season in front of a sell-out 26,000 strong crowd – with many more having to be turned away at the gates. The Lions would lose 19-16, a tradition they have, on the whole, stayed loyal to while playing on Thanksgiving ever since.
The Super Bowl-less franchise’s .463 win percentage, and specifically their six wins to 16 defeats since the turn of the century (including a nine-game losing streak from 2004), has led to questions over whether the NFL’s most prominent prime-time window should still belong to them. For now, tradition still dictates so.
There are no such concerns over the Cowboys. Nicknamed ‘America’s Team’, the Cowboys have been named as the most valuable sporting franchise by Forbes for a 16th year, at an estimated value of $8 billion. The Cowboys have always been, and will continue to be, a big draw.
They have held a stake of Thanksgiving since 1966, with two exceptions in 1975 and 1977 when, at the behest of then-commissioner Pete Rozelle, the St Louis Cardinals replaced Dallas as a host team. But a series of ugly losses, and underwhelming attendances, combined to see the Cowboys back centre stage on the holiday ever since.
What are some standout Thanksgiving moments?
It is not always bad news for the Lions on Thanksgiving. Take 1962, for example, when the Lions stunned Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers 26-14 in what would be the only defeat of the season for the eventual NFL champions.
The most famous comeback in Thanksgiving Day history belongs to Clint Longley, the rookie Cowboys back-up QB who replaced a concussed Roger Staubach in the second half of Dallas’ 1974 game against Washington. Trailing 16-3 in the third quarter, Longley’s 35-yard touchdown pass to Billy Joe Dupree first gave the Cowboys life before, still behind by six with under a minute left, his 28-yard scoring strike to Drew Pearson earned them an improbable 24-23 win.
The Lions were involved in the first Thanksgiving game to go to overtime in 1980 when they found themselves tied 17-17 with the Bears at the end of regulation, before Chicago’s Dave Williams returned the subsequent kick-off 95 yards for the game-winning touchdown within 21 seconds.
Eighteen years later, they would be involved in another memorable overtime game – but for all the wrong reasons. Steelers running back Jerome Bettis, a Detroit native, claimed he had correctly called ‘tails’ at the coin toss but referee Phil Luckett deemed he had said ‘heads’, handing the Lions the football… and they proceeded to win with a 42-yard field goal on that opening possession. Pittsburgh, after a 7-4 start, would not win again during the 1998 season.
That same year, Hall of Fame receiver Randy Moss’ Thanksgiving Day stat line for the Vikings against the Cowboys read three catches, 163 yards and three touchdowns – on his way to an NFL rookie record 17 TD grabs that season – as Minnesota romped to a 46-36 victory.
Although Thanksgiving holds mixed memories for Lions fans, its association with Detroit does also deliver a welcome annual reminder of Barry Sanders’ greatness. The Hall of Fame running back graced the 1997 game with 167 rushing yards for three touchdowns from 19 carries in a 55-20 win over the Bears.
Two years prior Sanders had also rushed for 138 yards and a 50-yard touchdown in a thrilling 44-38 victory over the Minnesota Vikings, during which respective quarterbacks Scott Mitchell and Warren Moon threw for a combined 794 yards and seven touchdowns.
And we simply cannot reel off the greatest moments in NFL Thanksgiving history without a word for the ‘Butt Fumble’. Back in 2012, then New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez went down in infamy for a play in which he attempted to scramble away from pressure only to face plant into the backside of one of his offensive linemen, fumbling the football in the process – with Steve Gregory then scooping up the ball for a 32-yard touchdown in a massive 49-19 win for New England.
What to expect from this year’s triple-header?
The Lions may well have a history of losing on Thanksgiving, and although they sit a lowly 4-6 on the season – the only team of the six to feature with a losing record – they actually come into Thursday’s contest bang in form, having won three on the bounce, beating the Green Bay Packers, as well as the Bears and Giants on the road.
They are in better form than their opponents, in fact, with the Bills (7-3) having lost two on the bounce before their win over the Browns in Detroit a few days ago. Buffalo were upset 20-17 by the New York Jets before suffering a 33-30 overtime loss to the Vikings in a wild finish to their Week 10 meeting.
Bills quarterback Josh Allen has slipped off the league MVP as a result, throwing two interceptions in three-straight games before a blemish-free outing against the Browns. He is still very much the star of the show though in Buffalo, arguably the best QB in the NFL, while he has a devastating connection with receiver Stefon Diggs.
Moving on to Dallas, where the Cowboys host the Giants in a key divisional clash with both teams boasting identical 7-3 records. That still sees them trail the Philadelphia Eagles (9-1) in the NFC East, but the winner of this one will move closer still to guaranteeing at least a wild card playoff spot.
A sub-plot to this game too is that it is being billed as the ‘OBJ Bowl’, with the Cowboys and the Giants the favourites to land the signature of Odell Beckham Jr, the free agent superstar receiver having visits scheduled with both teams after Thanksgiving.
The Giants currently boast the NFL’s second-leading rusher in 2022 in Saquon Barkley (95.3 yards per game), but it could well be a good time for the Cowboys to face them. Dallas not only come into the contest off the back of a 40-3 hammering of the Vikings but the Giants, contrastingly, having lost two of their last three – with only a victory over the one-win Houston Texans (1-8-1) sandwiched in between.
Finally, the Vikings (8-2) look to address that desperate defeat to Dallas by getting back to winning ways against the Patriots (6-4). Not an easy feat against a Bill Belichick-led team, particularly one that has now well and truly hit their stride this season, having won five of their last six and three in a row – most recently downing the Jets in dramatic fashion with an 84-yard punt return touchdown to win it with five seconds remaining.
The Patriots will need to find a way to contain Vikings star receiver Justin Jefferson, however, if they are to claim another victory. Jefferson has the second-most receiving yards in the NFL this season (1,093), while he needs just needs 55 more to pass Moss (4,163) for the most in a player’s first three seasons in NFL history.
Watch the Thanksgiving Thursday triple-header – Bills @ Lions, Giants @ Cowboys and Patriots @ Vikings – live on Sky Sports NFL from 5.30pm, Thursday