Top five NFL Thanksgiving matchups worth remembering

Watching NFL matchups on Thanksgiving Day is as much as a tradition in America as celebrating the National Holiday itself. Check out these top 5 Thanksgiving Day matchups in NFL history..

Long before the NFL began holding regularly scheduled Thanksgiving matchups, dating all the way back to the game’s infancy in the 19th century, the holiday has been associated with football. In 1876, thirteen years after Abraham Lincoln declared the fourth Thursday in November a National Holiday of giving thanks, Yale and Princeton began an annual tradition of playing American football on Thanksgiving Day. Other universities soon followed suit, seeing an opportunity to play in front of large crowds as most people did not have to work.

NFL gets in on Thanksgiving Day matchups

In the NFL’s inaugural season, the tradition of playing football on Thanksgiving Day continued. On November 25th, 1920, the NFL pitted the Chicago Tigers against the Decatur Staleys. It was a duel to the death, as the Tigers were relegated to a footnote in the NFL history books, never to play another season.

The Staleys moved to Chicago the following year and changed their name to the Bears in 1922, sharing the city with the Chicago Cardinals (now Arizona) for almost 40 years. If you ever wonder why these two teams play more often than most on Thanksgiving, there’s some historical significance, as they’re the only two original NFL franchises still in existence. The same is true for the Green Bay Packers, who joined the league in 1921.

NFL Thanksgiving matchups became a huge marketing ploy for new franchises. Originally known as the Portsmouth Spartans, the Lions began playing in Detroit in 1934. Lions’ owner, George Richards (also the owner of NBC affiliate, WJR) scheduled a Thanksgiving Day game to draw in crowds while negotiating to broadcast the game across the NBC network.

It worked like a charm, as the Detroit Lions have had a national platform annually ever since – excluding 1939-1944, during WWII. This year, the Detroit Lions will host the Houston Texans in the early NFL Thanksgiving Day matchup (12:30 p.m. on CBS).

The Cowboys join the NFL’s Thanksgiving Day tradition

Similarly, in 1966, Dallas Cowboys GM, Tex Schramm, determined a Thanksgiving Day game would increase publicity for the team. Having struggled in each of the franchise’s first six seasons, the NFL actually backed the game, guaranteeing revenue to the Cowboys, assuming attendance would be low.

Luckily, that didn’t happen, as the game broke a Cotton Bowl record with over 80,000 people in attendance. The Cowboys have hosted an NFL Thanksgiving Day matchup ever since — except for two times.  In 1975 and 1977, the NFL allowed the St. Louis Cardinals (formerly Chicago, one of the two original NFL franchises) to host. This year, the Cowboys will host the division rival Washington Football Team (4:30 p.m. on FOX).

Primetime NFL Thanksgiving matchups introduced

For years, Lamar Hunt wanted the Kansas City Chiefs to become the third regular host of a Thanksgiving Day game. The NFL obliged, rewarding the Chiefs with a home game for the first primetime Thanksgiving matchup ever played in 2006. However, to allow other teams to host, the third game has been on rotation for the past 14 years. This year’s game is a matchup between two AFC North teams, with the Pittsburgh Steelers hosting the Baltimore Ravens (8:20 p.m. on NBC).

There has been a bounty of memorable Thanksgiving Day games played during the 100 years of the NFL — games that have gone down in the history books as well as those that are just fun to remember (like Mark Sanchez’s infamous “Butt Fumble”).

In honor of the 2020 NFL Thanksgiving Day matchups, sit back and relax, grab a Turducken or two and enjoy a recap of the top five Thanksgiving Day games played in NFL history.

5. San Francisco 49ers vs Baltimore Ravens – November 24, 2011

Emotionally driven to claim bragging rights, the “Harbaugh Bowl” — which begins our list of the top five Thanksgiving games in NFL history — featured the first-ever battle between brothers as NFL head coaches, John and Jim Harbaugh.

Two defensive juggernauts in 2011, the game was expected to be low-scoring and it was.  Neither team could produce anything offensively for most of the game. There wasn’t a single receiver or running back who topped more than 65-yard and quarterbacks, Joe Flacco and Alex Smith, combined for 300 yards thru the air.

Joe Flacco finally brought some life to the Ravens offense with a touchdown pass to tight end Dennis Pitta, finally breaking the 6-6 tie on the first play of the fourth quarter.  Even so, Baltimore’s defense really won it for Baltimore. They ended the game with one interception, a forced fumble and sacked Alex Smith a staggering nine times on the way to victory.

On a day where family celebrates together, this NFL Thanksgiving matchup was intriguing from that aspect alone – big brother versus little brother – but it ended up being more than that as we would see these two teams, and brothers, play each other again in Super Bowl XLVII.

Perhaps we’ll even see a rematch this February, as both teams currently rank on top of the NFL Power Standings.

Top five NFL Thanksgiving matchups worth remembering
Photo Credit:

4. Pittsburgh Steelers vs Detroit Lions – November 26, 1998

In 1998, the Steelers and Lions played in a classic Thanksgiving overtime game. What this game is most memorable for would normally be considered a non-factor in the NFL. It’s the infamous “heads-tails” game where the confusion surrounding the coin-toss in overtime took longer to sort out than it took Dave Williams to return a game-winning overtime kickoff in 1980.

Captains Jerome Bettis (Steelers) and Carnell Lake (Lions) met at mid-field for the OT coin-toss. Referee Phil Luckett instructed Bettis to call heads or tails, which he proceeded to do. Unfortunately, he said both.

Hearing “heads,” Luckett awarded the ball to the Lions, who went on to win the game on a 42-yard field goal less than three minutes later. However, confusion remained on the Pittsburgh sideline as Bettis insisted he called tails. A few days later, audio evidence revealed Bettis began to say heads but changed to tails mid-toss. Luckett later revealed he had heard both, but honored what was called first.

The confusion seemed to have a lasting effect as neither team won a single game the remainder of the season, both missing the playoffs. However, shortly after that game, NFL commissioner, Paul Tagliabue, declared it now necessary for teams to call heads or tails prior to the coin toss.

3. Green Bay Packers vs Detroit Lions – November 22, 1962

In 1962, the Green Bay Packers were steam-rolling opponents, outscoring them 309-74 on their way to a 10-0 record heading into the Thanksgiving tilt against the Detroit Lions. Although the Lions were 7-3 at the time, the Packers were a seven-point road favorite due to the likes of Bart Starr and Jim Taylor on offense, as well as Ray Nitschke and Willie Wood on defense.

But the Lions also had a formidable defense, led by the original Fearsome Foursome, Dick “Night Train” Lane and defensive coordinator Don Shula (yes, the same Don Shula that coached the Miami Dolphins in the Dallas snow game and later became the most winningest coach in NFL history), among others.

The Packers’ plan to limit the Lions pass rush was to throw quick, short throws. However, Don Shula outwitted Vince Lombardi’s team by pressing receivers at the line of scrimmage. Confusion ensued along the offensive line as defenders twisted and stunted their way into the backfield, taking away any chance for the Packers to establish an attack.

Although the Packers scored a couple of late touchdowns to narrow the margin of victory, the Lions had completely manhandled the Packers in the 26-14 win. The Lions defense forced five turnovers and held the Packers to 122 total yards of offense while sacking Bart Starr an incredible 11 times.

Known as the “Thanksgiving Day Massacre” it’s a game many Lions fans, and Packers fans, will never forget.

nfl Thanksgiving matchups
Photo Credit: David Nystrom, Chicago Tribune

2. Chicago Bears vs Detroit Lions – November 27, 1980

This was a classic comeback story. The Detroit Lions led the Chicago Bears 17-3 heading into the 4th quarter. The Bears were able to force overtime when quarterback Vince Evans scrambled and dove into the end zone for the score on the last play of regulation.

On the ensuing kickoff, running back Dave Williams recorded the shortest overtime in NFL history (13 seconds) with a 95-yard walk-off kick return for a touchdown. That feat wouldn’t be repeated until 2002, when NY Jets running back, Chad Morton, returned a game-winning kickoff in overtime against the Buffalo Bills.

During the kick return, the Bears sideline erupted and charged the field while Williams was still on his way to the end zone. Not known for touchdown celebrations, Walter Payton was ecstatic, jumping on the back of Hall of Fame defensive tackle Dan Hampton.

“There was 6-8-10 seconds of pandemonium where we were all screaming and then it was like somebody hit me in the face with a baseball bat,” Hampton said. “Walter had run up and did his patented jump high and when he came down he came down across the back of my helmet. It wasn’t chin-strapped. I had a big cage mask and it came up and hit me perfectly in the snout and, my God, the blood went everywhere.

“I didn’t know what happened. Everybody was looking at me like, ‘What the hell’s up with you?’ Well, we get into the locker room and everybody’s happy and I didn’t want to be a buzzkill, so I just put cotton up my nose and got on the plane.”

Although the Bears ended with a losing record that season, the win on Thanksgiving Day — which comes in at two on our top Thanksgiving games in NFL history — also kept the Lions out of the playoffs. The Lions ended with a 9-7 record but it was not enough to win the NFC North as the Minnesota Vikings, also 9-7, held the tie-breaker.

1. Miami Dolphins vs Dallas Cowboys – November 25, 1993

Likely the craziest Thanksgiving matchup in NFL history, the Dallas Cowboys hosted the Miami Dolphins on a snow-covered field at Texas Stadium in 1993. Both teams were being considered favorites to win their conferences coming into the game. The Cowboys had just come off a Super Bowl victory the season before and the Dolphins were 8-2, despite losing Dan Marino to a torn Achilles earlier in the season.

The game was sloppy, but fun to watch. If you’ve ever played football in the middle of winter in Upstate NY, you can certainly relate to the struggles both teams were having, primarily with traction.

But the snow also helped produce a few big plays during the game. Kevin Williams, wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys, had a huge punt return of 64-yards for a touchdown in the 2nd quarter to take the first Cowboys lead in the game. Earlier in the first quarter, Dolphins running back Keith Byars ran 77 yards for the game’s first score, capping it off with one of the greatest touchdown celebrations ever – a snow angel.

The way this game ended, however, is what makes this one of the most memorable Thanksgiving matchups in NFL history. Down by one point, Pete Stoyanich attempted a 40-yard field goal to win the game for the Dolphins. Dallas blocked the attempt and Texas Stadium erupted as the Cowboys sideline began to celebrate their win. However, the ball never came to rest on the snow-covered field, spinning on its end. Unless Miami touched it, the play was not over.

Leon Lett, seeing an opportunity to end the game for the Cowboys, attempted to dive on top of it. But when he went to grab the ball, he slid on the frozen turf, running into the ball and making it live. Miami players, who were surrounding the ball at the time Lett touched it, saw an opportunity to extend the game, recovering the ball at the one-yard line while Dallas fans were still celebrating. With three seconds left on the clock, Stoyanovich kicked the 19-yard field goal for an unbelievable Miami win in our top NFL Thanksgiving Day game in league history.

The teams went in opposite directions after that. Miami would go on to lose the rest of their games, missing any chance at the playoffs, while the Cowboys went undefeated the remainder of the season, ending as back-to-back Super Bowl Champions. In fact, the loss to Miami would be Jimmy Johnson’s last loss as coach of the Dallas Cowboys as he parted ways with the team during the off-season.

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