Ever since the first professional football league was formed in the early 1900s, football has been as much a part of Thanksgiving Day as pumpkin pie, turkey and dinner at Grandma’s.
Upon creation of the NFL in 1920, the league initially played multiple games on Thanksgiving Day.
In 1920 there were a total of six games played on Thanksgiving. Included during that first season were matchups between the Canton Bulldogs and Akron Pros, Daytona Triangles against the Detroit Heralds, and the Elyria Athletics against the Columbus Panhandles.
The first matchup between two current NFL franchises was in 1922 when the Chicago Cardinals defeated the Chicago Bears 6-0. The first regular Thanksgiving rivalry, the Cardinals and Bears met every year between 1922 and 1933.
The following year, the Cardinals played the Green Bay Packers on Thanksgiving Day while the Bears faced the Detroit Lions.
From 1934-1938 the Bears and Lions played annually on Turkey Day.In 1939 and 1940 the only Thanksgiving Day game was played between the Philadelphia Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers.
No Thanksgiving Day games were played during World War II, but since 1945 the Lions have played on Thanksgiving Day ever year.
From 1951 through 1963 the Lions and Packers were a regular Thanksgiving tradition.The Lions and Packers met on Thanksgiving Day every year between 1951 and 1963. In 1962 the Lions handed the Packers their only loss of the season.
However, after the Lions handed the Packers their only loss of the 1962 season in a shocking Thanksgiving massacre and then the following season played the defending champions to a 13-13 tie, Vince Lombardi and the Packers thought they should share the Thanksgiving experience with the rest of the NFL.
The Dallas Cowboys made their first Thanksgiving Day appearance in 1966 when they defeated the Cleveland Browns 28-14. With the exception of the 1975 and 1977 seasons, the Cowboys have hosted a game on Thanksgiving ever since.
When the AFL began play in 1960 they also started playing games on Thanksgiving Day. From 1960 through 1969 the AFL had at least one game on Thanksgiving every year.
Following the NFL-AFL merger and realignment in 1970, the league settled on having two Thanksgiving Day games with Detroit and Dallas traditionally serving as the hosts.
In 2006 a third game was added to be played on the NFL Network, but unlike the two other games of the day, the host site has been rotated between several teams.
Below are some specific games and memories that have helped solidify football as an important part of the Thanksgiving Holiday:
November 29, 1934 – In the first Thanksgiving matchup between the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears, the Bears won 19-16 to improve their season record to 12-0. They defeated the Lions again the following week in Chicago to finish the regular season undefeated.
November 22, 1951 – In what became a Thanksgiving Day tradition for more than a decade, the Detroit Lions defeated the Green Bay Packers 52-35. Jack Christiansen scored on punt returns of 71 and 89 yards and Bobby Layne tossed four touchdown passes.
November 27, 1952 – In their only year of existence, the Dallas Texans had already become wards of the NFL by Thanksgiving and were playing out the schedule wherever they could find a potential audience. On Thanksgiving Day, the winless Texans faced the Chicago Bears in Akron, Ohio. In front of a sparse crowd, the Texans claimed their only victory of the season with a 27-23 victory over the Chicago Bears.
November 22, 1962 – Featuring the 10-0 Packers against the 8-2 Lions, this was expected to be a tough game, but with the Packers remaining undefeated. Instead, the Lions dominated the action throughout as they scored the first 26 points in a dominating 26-14 victory. The Packers went on to finish the regular season with a 13-1 record and then claimed their second straight NFL title.
November 24, 1966 – The Dallas Cowboys made the most of their first Thanksgiving Day appearance as they rallied from a 14-13 deficit to defeat the Cleveland Browns 26-14. Don Perkins rushed for 111 yards and a touchdown in the victory.
November 26, 1970 – In the first Thanksgiving Day game featuring an NFL team against an AFL team, the Detroit Lions watched Daryle Lamonica and Fred Biletnikoff hook up for a pair of early touchdowns, the Lions scored 28 straight points to win 28-14. Greg Landry threw three touchdowns and Mel Farr rushed for 104 yards and a score.
November 28, 1974 – In a game that solidified the rivalry between the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins, the Cowboys rallied from a 16-3 deficit to defeat the Redskins 24-23. What was particularly memorable about this game was that instead of Roger Staubach leading the comeback it was unknown rookie Clint Longley who tossed a pair of touchdown passes, including a 50-yard pass to Drew Pearson in the final seconds to give Dallas the victory.
November 25, 1976 – In one of the greatest individual performances ever on Thanksgiving, O.J. Simpson established a new NFL single game rushing record with 273 yards. However, the Lions controlled the scoreboard winning 27-14 as Landry hooked up with rookie David Hill for a pair of touchdown tosses.
November 22, 1979 – Future Hall of Famers Earl Campbell and Roger Staubach highlighted an offensive display that ended with the Houston Oilers edging the Cowboys 3-24 in the Battle of Texas. Campbell rushed for 195 yards and two touchdowns while Staubach completed 21 of 30 passes for 287 yards and two scores. The Oilers scored the game winner on a 32-yard touchdown pass from Dan Pastorini to Ken Burrough.
November 27, 1980 – The Lions and Bears renewed their Thanksgiving rivalry by battling to a 17-17 tie through the end of regulation. In the shortest overtime in NFL history, Dave Williams of the Bears returned the overtime kickoff 95-yards to give Chicago a 23-17 victory.
November 25, 1982 – After a strike that cost the league seven games during the 1982 season, the NFL returned with a full schedule the weekend before Thanksgiving. The matchup on Thanksgiving Day between the Lions and New York Giants signaled to the nation that football was back. The game was tied 6-6 in the fourth quarter when the Lions looked to be driving toward the winning score. However, in a play that helped solidify his reputation as a superstar, Lawrence Taylor intercepted a Gary Danielson pass and raced 97-yards for the game-winning score.
November 22, 1984 – Facing each other on Thanksgiving Day for the first time since 1963, the Lions and Packers played an exciting game. The Packers led 21-17 at halftime, but the Lions rallied to claim a 31-28 victory. Gary Danielson passed for 305 yards and three scores in the victory.
November 26, 1987 – In a high-scoring contest, the Minnesota Vikings overcame a late Dallas rally to defeat the Cowboys 44-38 in overtime. Darrin Nelson rushed for 118 yards and two touchdowns and Tommy Kramer threw two scoring passes. Danny White passed for 341 yards and four scores, but he also threw three interceptions.
November 23, 1989 – Barry Sanders made the most of his first Thanksgiving appearance rushing for 145 yards in a 13-10 victory over the Cleveland Browns. Bernie Kosar passed for 296 yards in the loss. In 10 career games on Thanksgiving Day, Sanders rushed for 931 yards and eclipsed the 100 yard mark four times.
November 25, 1993 – Playing on a snow-covered field at Texas Stadium, the Dallas Cowboys seemed to have escaped with a victory against the Dan Marino-less Miami Dolphins after blocking a field goal in the final seconds. However, for some reason, defensive lineman Leon Lett raced past teammates who were waiting for the ball to be blown dead. Lett touched the ball and the Dolphins then recovered and kicked the game-winning field goal in a 16-14 victory. The game did prove to be motivation for Dallas as they did now lose again on the season as they went on to win their second straight Super Bowl.
November 24, 1994 – Facing the Green Bay Packers without the services of quarterback Troy Aikman, the Cowboys rely on the legs of Emmitt Smith and the arm of backup Jason Garrett to defeat Brett Favre and the Packers 42-31. Smith rushed for 133 yards and two scores while Garrett passed for 311 yards and two touchdowns. Favre passed for 257 yards and four touchdowns in the loss.
November 26, 1998 – In a game that forever changed how coin tosses were administered, the Detroit Lions defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers 19-16 in overtime. When the coin at the start of overtime landed on tails, the Steelers thought they had won the toss and receive the ball. However, referee Phil Luckett said he heard Jerome Bettis yell heads first and awarded the ball to Detroit. The Lions then marched down the field and won the game on a 42-yard field goal by Jason Hanson 2:52 into the extra session.
November 26, 1998 – The coin toss debacle in Detroit proved to be just the start of an entertaining day. Quarterbacks Troy Aikman and Randall Cunningham treated fans with an amazing passing display. Aikman passed for a career-high 455 yards and a touchdown. Cunningham threw for 359 yards and four scores. Emmitt Smith and Randy Moss each scored three touchdowns in the game. Minnesota led throughout and won 46-36.
November 23, 2000 – This 34-9 domination by the Lions over the New England Patriots and their first year head coach Bill Belichick is noteworthy because it marked the career debut for future Super Bowl quarterback Tom Brady. The rookie from Michigan completed one of three passes for six yards in a mop-up appearance late in the game.
November 22, 2001 – Both Detroit (0-9) and Dallas (2-7) entered their Thanksgiving games as huge underdogs, but both teams nearly rallied for a win against a better squad. The winless Lions made a ferocious late rally against the Packers, but a two-point conversion following a touchdown pass from Mike McMahon to Scotty Anderson failed and the Packers held on for a 29-27 victory. Dallas trailed the Broncos 26-3, but scored three touchdowns in the fourth quarter in a 26-24 loss.
November 24, 2005 – The Denver Broncos improved to 9-2 with a 24-21 overtime victory over the Cowboys. Dallas tied the game on a four-yard touchdown pass from Drew Bledsoe to Jason Whitten, but Jason Elam kicked a 24-yard field goal in overtime to give Denver the victory.