A general view in America is that the NFL owns a day of the week in Sunday and one holiday of the year in Thanksgiving. Even with travel limited because of the pandemic, it’s hard to think of Turkey Day without the Dallas Cowboys, Detroit Lions, and now that third night game popping into your head.
The NFL has actually been playing games on Thanksgiving since its formation in 1920, minus a five-year break for World War II. The tradition resumed in 1946 with Detroit always playing a home game. In 1966, the league added a second game and Dallas agreed to host it. Then in 2006, the NFL Network added primetime game, which NBC has aired since '12.
Nearly 100 years of Thanksgiving games has produced countless great moments. Here are the 10 most memorable.
10. Dallas Texans record first and only win
Dallas Texans 27, Chicago Bears 23
Nov. 27, 1952 – Akron, Ohio
No, we’re not talking about the AFL franchise that is now the Kansas City Chiefs. We’re talking about one of the many franchises that folded in the early decades of the NFL. The Texans launched in 1952, but poor play and attendance bankrupted the team in its inaugural season and area businessmen refused to fund it. The NFL took over the franchise and had to find new venues to play its home games. One of those contests was a Thanksgiving Day contest with the Chicago Bear at Akron’s Rubber Bowl. Bears coach George Halas thought so little of his opponent that he started his B-team and the Texans were able to jump out to a 20-2 lead and hang on for the win. It would be the only victory in the franchise’s history, as it folded after the season. If there is a silver lining to their saga, it’s that many Texans players, including Gino Marchetti and Art Donovan, went on to play the next year for a new franchise called the Baltimore Colts.
9. Six touchdowns for Peyton Manning
Indianapolis 41, Detroit 9
Nov. 25, 2004 – Detroit
In 2004, Manning broke Dan Marino’s single-season record of 48 touchdown passes by completing his 49th. How’d he do it? With games like this shellacking of Detroit where he recorded six TD passes in three quarters. The only other quarterback to accomplish that feat on Thanksgiving Day is Bob Griese.
8. Detroit stuns Lombardi
Detroit 26, Green Bay 14
Nov. 22, 1962 – Detroit
The 1962 Green Bay Packers are arguably the finest squad that Vince Lombardi ever assembled and entered the Thanksgiving Day contest at Tiger Stadium 10-0. However, the Lions shut down Green Bay’s offense, sacking Bart Starr 11 times and forcing five turnovers, in a 26-14 win. It would be the Packers only blemish, as they won their second straight NFL title. For Lions fans, the win remains one of their fondest Thanksgiving Day memories.
7. Lawrence Taylor beats the Lions
New York Giants 13, Detroit Lions 6
Nov. 25, 1982 – Detroit
In the third quarter, Detroit was on New York’s three-yard line poised to pull ahead in a defensive struggle. Lions quarterback Gary Danielson took the snap and tossed the ball to Horace King who was running a fade-out to the sideline. Taylor sped into the lane, picked off the pass, and ran 97 yards into the end zone for the winning score. In a career full of highlights, this was one of LT’s best.
6. Clint Longley’s finest hour
Dallas 24, Washington 23
Nov. 28, 1974 – Dallas
After Roger Staubach went down with a concussion in the third quarter, the rookie from Abilene Christian came in facing a 16-3 deficit to the Redskins. Longley quickly went to work, leading two drives to put Dallas up 17-16. Then he stunned Washington and the Texas Stadium faithful by throwing a 50-year bomb to Drew Pearson with 28 seconds left to win 24-23. Unfortunately for Longley, that was his peak moment. In 1976, he sucker punched Staubach in training camp and was suspended before being traded to the San Diego Chargers, who cut him after the 1977 training camp. After being cut by the CFL’s Hamilton Tiger-Cats in 1980, he quit pro football for good and seems to have disappeared off the face of the Earth.
Detroit 19, Pittsburgh 16
Nov. 26, 1998 – Detroit
This Turkey Day game prompted a change in the NFL rule book. Tied 16-16 going into overtime, Steelers running back Jerome Bettis watched as Phil Luckett flipped the coin toss and called heads and then quickly changed his mind and called tails. Luckett awarded the ball to Detroit despite Bettis’ protests and Lions kicker Jason Hanson booted the winning field goal on the first possession. Thanks to this play, the NFL now requires players to call the coin toss before it is flipped.
4. The first overtime
Chicago 23, Detroit 17 (OT)
Nov. 27, 1980 – Detroit
Down 17-3 going into the fourth quarter, the Bears scored on a 20-yard pass from Vince Evans to Bob Fisher to close the lead to 17-10. Then Evans ran into the end zone as time expired to send the game into overtime for the first time ever on Thanksgiving Day (The NFL did not require overtime for regular season games until 1974). Chicago return man Dave Williams then made it the shortest overtime in history at the time when he returned the kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown 13 seconds in to the fifth quarter.
3. The “Butt Fumble”
New England Patriots 49, New York Jets 14
Nov. 22, 2012 – East Rutherford, N.J.
Down 14-0 to New England in the second quarter, Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez took the snap, found himself in a busted play, and tried to run with the ball. And then... well, just take a look. The “Butt Fumble” will live in infamy, in part because NFL Network producers seem to be required to mention it in every other episode of “Top 10” and because Jets fans cannot let it go.
2. Barry Sanders slices through Chicago
Detroit 55, Chicago 20
Nov. 27, 1997 – Detroit
There have many great rushing performances on Thanksgiving Day, include a 273-yard game by O.J. Simpson in 1976 and several by Emmitt Smith. But the most memorable was by Sanders against the Bears in 1997. Sanders was recording his best season ever, in which he rushed for more than 2,000 yards and averaged 6.1 yards a carry. His performance against Chicago was one of his finest that season, as he rushed for 167 yards on 19 carries (an average of 8.8 ypc).
1. Leon Lett’s slide
Miami 16, Dallas 14
Nov. 25, 1993 – Dallas
Leon Lett had become a household name 10 months earlier when he recovered a fumble late in the game during Dallas’ trouncing of the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl XXVII. As he was running towards the goal line, Lett held the ball out to showboat and Bills wide receiver Don Beebe ran behind him and knocked it out of his hand. The pigskin bounced out of the end zone for a touchback and Buffalo ball. It got worse on Thanksgiving Day on an unusually snowy Texas Stadium field. With the Cowboys leading 14-13 with 15 seconds left, Dolphins kicker Peter Stoyanovich attempted a 41-yard field goal that was blocked by Jimmie Jones. Lett thought he needed to recover the ball and went chasing after it. He slipped and fell into it, making it a live ball. Miami recovered on the one-yard line and were given three seconds to kick. This time, Stoyanovich was successful. The Cowboys would not lose again en route to their second straight Lombardi Trophy. I know, it’s a shame that this is No. 1, but it is hard to think of the NFL and Thanksgiving without thinking of Lett.
— Written by Aaron Tallent, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Tallent is a writer whose articles have appeared in The Sweet Science, FOX Sports’ Outkick the Coverage, Liberty Island and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter at @AaronTallent.