What good is Thanksgiving turkey dinner without a healthy dose of the NFL?

Thanksgiving games, a tradition as old as football itself, have become a fixture of the American holiday experience. Where there’s stuffing, there’s the Dallas Cowboys. For the cranberry sauce, count on the Detroit Lions. And, depending on how the season is going, either one could be tied to turkey.

Because getting out of work on a Thursday to devour a Henry VIII-worthy feast wasn’t enough for mankind, we’ve also added two football games to the buffet. And in 2006, the NFL tossed in a third game, at night, presumably for those who found themselves waking up from a tryptophan-induced nap during the afternoon game, looking for more football to watch.

In the spirit of the Thanksgiving pot-luck, here’s a sampling of Thanksgiving football knowledge that’ll make you look like a pro.

Why the Cowboys and Lions?

Dallas digs the limelight, makes the move to America’s Team

Before the days of the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, Jerry Jones and Jessica Simpson in a pink Tony Romo jersey, the Cowboys were just another team in America, not America’s Team. General manager Tex Schramm, in search of a bit of publicity, signed his squad up for the Thanksgiving game in 1966.

Did you know?

  • For its first Thanksgiving game, the team packed 80,000-plus into the Cotton Bowl for a 26-14 win against the Cleveland Browns with a young, unproven coach named Tom Landry.

  • Dallas native Selena Gomez will perform live at halftime this year. Randy Travis, Sheryl Crow and the Jonas Brothers have also sung at halftime of previous Dallas Thanksgiving games.

  • Dallas’ first Thanksgiving game was in 1952. The Texans, who later became the Kansas City Chiefs, lost 27-23 to the Chicago Bears in Akron, Ohio.

Detroit dukes it out with Chicago, dines on bear afterward

When the Portsmouth (Ohio) Spartans moved to Detroit in 1934, they played in the shadow of the baseball powerhouse Tigers, and couldn’t draw more than 15,000 for home games. For their Thanksgiving debut in 1934, the Lions lost 19-16 to the Bears, but drew a sellout crowd of 26,000.

Did you know?

  • To stoke the rivalry for the inaugural Thanksgiving game against Chicago, Lions owner George A. Richards arranged for his team to eat a bear as their postgame meal.

  • Now on a Thanksgiving losing streak of 10 seasons, Detroit last won the game in 2003. Jason Hanson kicked five field goals and the Lions intercepted Packers quarterback Brett Favre three times in the 22-14 win.

  • In 1980, David Williams returned the opening overtime kick 95 yards for a touchdown to give Chicago a 23-17 victory. It was the shortest OT in NFL history at the time.

The third game – your place or mine?

Since 2006, the NFL has hosted a third game as the final leg of Thanksgiving. The primetime game, played by different teams every year, has quieted grumblings that other teams don’t get to host the holiday matches. A possible NFL rule change would allow the Lions’ or Cowboys’ game to move to prime time and another game to be played in the afternoon.

Best and worst Thanksgiving moments


  1. O.J. Simpson, 1976

Buffalo Bills running back O.J. Simpson, nicknamed “The Juice,” ripped Detroit for a then-record 276 rushing yards in a 27-14 loss. It’s still the Thanksgiving Day record for rushing yards.

  1. Peyton Manning, 2004

In a 41-9 victory at Detroit, the Colts’ Manning threw more touchdown passes (6), then an NFL record, than incompletions (5). Manning later threw seven TD passes in one game in 2013 with the Denver Broncos.

  1. Clint Longley, 1974

With star quarterback Roger Staubach injured, Longley, a rookie, heaved a 50-yard scoring pass to Drew Pearson in the game’s final minute to beat the NFC East rival Washington Redskins. Unfortunately, Longley’s legend didn’t last. After he sucker-punched Staubach during training camp two seasons later, Dallas traded him to San Diego for a first-round pick. That pick helped them land hall-of-famer Tony Dorsett.


  1. Leon Lett, 1993

In probably the wackiest Thanksgiving play ever, Lett’s blunder in the final moments of a game iced by a freak Dallas snowstorm allowed the Miami Dolphins to kick the game-winning field goal.

  1. Jerome Bettis, 1998

Referee Phil Luckett is often blamed for fumbling the overtime coin flip between the Lions and Steelers, but enhanced audio from that day indicates that Bettis said “hea-tails!” when asked to call the flip. By NFL rule, the player’s first answer is the final answer. Detroit won the toss, then the game, on a field goal.

  1. Jonas Brothers, 2008

Football coaches always look for mismatches to gain an advantage. This was a mismatch with no advantage. Nothing against the Jonas boys, but there was a genre clash at Texas Stadium that day.

Be Thankful

NBC Radio broadcast the first Thanksgiving game, that historic meeting of the Bears and Lions in 1934, to a network of 94 stations. Radio was catching on, and 83% of American homes had one by 1940.

In 1956, the Lions played in the first televised Thanksgiving game. The Green Bay Packers won 24-20, in the midst of the TV revolution. Between 1950 and 1960, TV ownership in American homes rose from less than 10% to 87%. That’s back in the days of one TV per household, in most cases.

With tools such as NFL.com audio pass, Verizon FiOS TV and NFL mobile, and WatchESPN NFL, we have the luxury of watching all the games, on many devices. Even when we’re not supposed to.

And that’s something to be thankful for.

David Preston is a husband, father of 2 and diehard Carolina Panthers Fan. When he’s not chasing kids or applying body paint, he free-lances in the gaming and entertainment space.

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