Despite a rough run of losing seasons over the past two decades, the Detroit Lions continue to host the first game of the NFL’s Thanksgiving tripleheader. So why do the Lions play on Thanksgiving? Here’s a look at why Detroit plays at home on Thanksgiving every year, their most common Thanksgiving matchups, and their record in these games.
Why Do the Lions Play on Thanksgiving?
The tradition of Detroit-based football teams playing on Thanksgiving can be traced back 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 and the NFL decided to have the Lions play on Thanksgiving 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 over a decade, as had the Chicago Cardinals. What 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 could 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 boosted attendance totals. The gamble would work as Richards would sell out the Lions’ first Thanksgiving game at 26,000 seats.
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 a Thanksgiving staple since 1945. Their 2022 matchup with the Buffalo Bills will be their 77th straight matchup and their 82nd in total. Their record during that time is a rather mediocre 37-43-2 for a .463 winning percentage.
The Lions’ record on Thanksgiving has been really up and down in their history. Detroit lost their first five games on Turkey Day, but they went 8-2 the following decade. The Lions had a strong run between 1970 and 2000 as they went 19-12.
MORE: Why do the Cowboys play on Thanksgiving?
Unfortunately, Thanksgiving in the 2000s has not been too kind to Detroit, either. Currently, on a five-game Thanksgiving losing streak, the Lions have only won six games on Turkey Day in the 21st century. That luck doesn’t seem to be changing with the Buffalo Bills coming to town in 2022.
Throughout NFL history, Detroit has played 28 more games than the next-highest team, the Dallas Cowboys. Among their 81 NFL games, which teams have Detroit played most frequently, and what record do they have against those teams?
The Lions Played 39 Games Against the Packers and Bears on Thanksgiving
Detroit has played 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 was the 19th Thanksgiving meeting 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 11-8, including winning three of the last four Thanksgiving matchups.
The Bills and Lions have met on Thanksgiving twice in NFL history. Heading into 2022’s matchup, the Lions have emerged victorious in every Thanksgiving meeting between these teams.
Buffalo currently has a 5-4-1 record on Thanksgiving football. The Bills have an excellent time on Thanksgiving unless they play the Lions. However, given the status of both teams, 2022 is Buffalo’s chance to earn its first-ever win over Detroit on Thanksgiving.