Lions Thanksgiving Game Tradition: History, record, and who they play in 2021

Despite a poor record on Thanksgiving, the Detroit Lions have a long-running tradition of playing on the holiday, but why is that the case?

The vast majority of football fans sitting down to enjoy the Thanksgiving tripleheader will not be able to remember a time when the tradition of the Detroit Lions playing a home game on the holiday did not exist. Let’s take a look at why the Lions play at home on Thanksgiving every year, their most common Thanksgiving matchups, and their record in these games.

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Why do the Lions play on Thanksgiving?

The tradition of Detroit-based football teams playing on Thanksgiving can be traced back all the way to the Detroit Heralds’ 7-0 loss to the Canton Bulldogs in 1917. Detroit teams would then play a total of five further games leading up to 1928.

However, the Lions’ tradition of playing on Thanksgiving began in 1934, their first season after being purchased and moved from being the Portsmouth Spartans to the Detroit Lions. The Lions’ owner George A. Richards, along with the NFL, decided to have the Lions play on Thanksgiving in an attempt to boost struggling attendance numbers for the newly relocated franchise.

The Lions’ first opponent was their now longtime rivals, the Chicago Bears. The Bears at the time had a rich history of playing on Thanksgiving, dating back to 1922. At the time, the decision was viewed as nothing more than a gimmick by the Lions. However, it would ignite a tradition that has stood the test of time over the past 87 years.

At the time of the Lions’ first Thanksgiving game, other teams had a much richer tradition with Thanksgiving football than Detroit. The Bears had been playing on the date for more than a decade, as had the Chicago Cardinals. What was it that allowed the Lions’ tradition to stand the test of time, while the Bears and Cardinals fizzled into sporadic Thanksgiving participants?

Lions owner takes control and creates a Thanksgiving tradition

The fact that the Lions were able to turn their attendance-boosting “gimmick” of playing on Thanksgiving into a tradition older than most Americans was due to their owner’s business smarts. At the time, Richards owned the radio station WJR, a major affiliate of the NBC Blue Network. He used this connection to negotiate a contract with NBC to air the Lions’ Thanksgiving games across the network.

Richards’ move placed the Lions in a powerful position. They were connected to a major broadcast network, and the original “gimmick” had also worked in terms of boosting attendance totals. These two factors combined to mean the NFL was more than happy for the Lions to continue playing on Thanksgiving. After the conclusion of World War II, the Lions’ home Thanksgiving game became a staple of NFL history.

What is the Lions’ Thanksgiving record?

The Lions have now been an ever-present team on Thanksgiving since 1945. Their 2021 matchup with the Chicago Bears will be their 76th straight matchup and their 81st in total. Their record during that time is a rather mediocre 37-42-2 for a .469 winning percentage.

The Lions’ record on Thanksgiving has been really up and down in their history. Detroit lost their first five games on the holiday, but they went 8-2 the following decade. The Lions had a strong run between 1970 and 2000 as they went 19-12.

Unfortunately, since 2001, the Lions have lost 14 while winning on just five occasions. Four of those five wins came in consecutive seasons between 2013 and 2016, but they have not won a Thanksgiving game since 2016.

Over the course of NFL history, the Lions have played 28 more games than the next-highest team, the Dallas Cowboys. Among their 81 NFL games, which teams have been the Lions’ most frequent opposition, and what is their record against those teams?

The Lions have played 39 games against the Packers and Bears on Thanksgiving

Detroit is present in three of the six most common Thanksgiving matchups in NFL history. The most common of those are the Lions’ 21 matchups against the Green Bay Packers, followed by 18 against the Bears.

The first such matchup came in 1951 and was repeated over the following 12 seasons. Subsequently, the matchup was absent from Thanksgiving for over 20 years, before the two sides matched up again in 1984 and 1986. Going forward, they didn’t face each other again until 2001, but they did clash six times between 2001 and 2013. Overall, the Lions have a 12-8-1 record against the Packers.

The 2021 matchup between the Bears and Lions will be their 19th meeting on Thanksgiving and the third in the past four seasons. The two sides matched up in consecutive seasons between 1934 and 1938, with the Lions winning three and losing two. Since then, the two teams have played 13 times, with the Bears holding the overall record at 10-8, including winning the two contests in 2018 and 2019.

After their matchups with the Packers and Bears, the Vikings are the Lions’ next most common opponent (five meetings). The two teams last met in 2017, and their meeting in 2016 was the Lions’ last victory on Thanksgiving. The Vikings lead the Thanksgiving series between the two teams 3-2.

Ben Rolfe is a Senior Managing Editor at Pro Football Network and is also a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association (FSWA). You can find him on Twitter @BenRolfePFN


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