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Why Do Certain NFL Teams Always Play on Thanksgiving?

The tradition of NFL teams playing on Thanksgiving dates back to 1920, with the Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys hosting games since 1934 and 1966, respectively. This custom celebrates football's role in American culture, offering a shared experience for families nationwide. Curious about how these teams became synonymous with Turkey Day? Dive deeper to uncover the history behind this beloved holiday ritual.

The holiday season can be unpredictable, even at the best of times. Will your travel plans work out? Will all of your family members get along? Will you get Thanksgiving dinner on the table without burning the turkey?

At least there's one thing you can always count on: The Detroit Lions and the Dallas Cowboys will play football on Thanksgiving Day. The tradition started back in 1934, when Lions owner George A. Richards came up with the idea for an NFL game on Thanksgiving to draw fans to an otherwise woeful franchise. The plan worked, and Detroit welcomed a sellout crowd. Thirty-two years later, the Cowboys followed suit, and Detroit and Dallas players have been swapping turkey for touchdowns ever since.

The afternoon Thanksgiving NFL games have featured the Dallas Cowboys since 1966 and the Detroit Lions since 1934.
The afternoon Thanksgiving NFL games have featured the Dallas Cowboys since 1966 and the Detroit Lions since 1934.

This year, the Lions will take on the Bears, and the Cowboys will take on the newly-relocated Las Vegas Raiders. For the record, working hasn't always meant winning, though. While Dallas has compiled a 31-20-1 record on Thanksgiving, Detroit has amassed a more meager 37-41-2 mark.

More Thanksgiving football stuff(ing):

  • A third NFL game has been played on Thanksgiving evening since 2006, but it does not always feature a particular team. This year's primetime game features the Buffalo Bills and the New Orleans Saints.

  • On Thanksgiving Day in 1976, Buffalo Bills running back O.J. Simpson set the single-game rushing record of 273 yards.

  • The highest-scoring game on Thanksgiving ended in a 44-40 win for the Green Bay Packers over the Lions in 1986.

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    • The afternoon Thanksgiving NFL games have featured the Dallas Cowboys since 1966 and the Detroit Lions since 1934.
      The afternoon Thanksgiving NFL games have featured the Dallas Cowboys since 1966 and the Detroit Lions since 1934.