Thanksgiving Day isn’t just a day for turkey. It’s also a day for football. Baseball has the summer holidays, basketball gets Christmas Day and hockey has now staked a claim for New Year’s Day. That leaves football for Thanksgiving, and it’s a tradition that’s as old as the NFL itself. Today, there are three games on Thanksgiving, all nationally televised and one features the Detroit Lions.
This year, the Lions played their NFC North rivals, the Minnesota Vikings, in a game that has playoff implications. The Lions and Vikings both went into the game with 6-4 records. Kickoff was at 12:30 p.m. ET and the game aired on CBS. The game ended in incredible fashion, with the Lions pulling off a 16-13 victory. The Lions now haven’t lost on Thanksgiving since 2012.
Here’s a look at the history of the Lions’ Thanksgiving Day tradition.
1. The Lions Weren’t the First Team to Play on Thanksgiving
Although the Lions are the team most closely associated with playing on Thanksgiving, they weren’t the first to do. According to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, there were six games held on November 25, 1920 during the NFL’s very first season. Two of those games were between league teams and non-league teams.
The Lions didn’t exist until 1930 and did not play on Thanksgiving that season. There were four games held on November 27, 1930 and only one of those games involved teams that no longer exist. The New York Giants lost to the Staten Island Stapletons 7-6 and the Green Bay Packers beat the Frankford Yellowjackets 25-7. The Chicago Bears beat the Chicago Cardinals (who are now in Arizona), 6-0.
By the way, the Bears were first involved in a Thanksgiving game on November 30, 1922, when they lost to the Cardinals 6-0. The Packers first played on Thanksgiving on November 29, 1923, when they beat the Hammond Pros 19-0.
2. The Lions Played Their First Thanksgiving Day Game in 1934 Against the Chicago Bears
Four years after they entered the league, the Lions finally played their first Thanksgiving Day game. It was against the Beats and they lost, 19-16. They played the Bears every single year on Thanksgiving Day until 1940, when the Lions stopped playing on the holiday due to World War II. The Lions resumed play on the Thanksgiving on November 22, 1945, losing to the Cleveland Rams, 28-21.
Playing on Thanksgiving was the idea of the Lions’ first owner, G.A. Richards. It was the first season the Lions played in Detroit, since Richards moved the franchise to the Motor City from Portsmouth, Ohio. Only 15,000 people showed up to that first game.
Richards successfully convinced the NBC Radio Network to broadcast the game nationally, so listeners of 94 stations across the country heard the game. It had all the hype of a must-win game, since it ultimately decided the winner of the Western Division. The Bears, who won the NFL championship the previous year, finished the 1934 season with a 13-0 record. The Lions went 10-3.
3. The Lions Have Played the Packers on Thanksgiving More Than Any Other Opponent
The Lions have played 76 Thanksgiving Day games and it seems only fair that the most frequent opponents are their NFC North division rivals, the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears.
The Lions have played the Packers 21 time on Turkey Day, with a 12-8-1 record. From 1951 to 1963, the Lions only played the Packers on Thanksgiving.
That tie with the Packers was back in 1963, when both teams scored 13 points. The Lions haven’t been involved in a Thanksgiving Day tie since 1965, when the Lions and Baltimore Colts both scored 24 points.
They’ve played the Bears 16 times and have split that series evenly with eight wins each.
For some strange reason, 2016 is just the fourth time the Lions have played the Vikings on Thanksgiving Day. They haven’t played each other on Turkey Day since 1995, when the Lions won in a thriller, 44-38.
4. This Was the First Time Ever That the Lions Earned Sole Possession of First Place of Their Division by Winning on Thanksgiving
This was easily the most important Thanksgiving Day game in the Lions’ history. As CBS Detroit points out, this was the first time they had a chance to take sole possession of first place in their division by winning on Thanksgiving. The Lions and Vikings are both in the NFC North and both had 6-4 records at the start of the day. In addition, the Lions have the tiebreaker over the Vikings, because they won on November 6, 22-16 in overtime. Now, the Lions are 2-0 against the Vikings this season and in thhe driver’s seat in the division.
The last time the Lions entered Thanksgiving in first place was in 2013, when they were tied with the Bears. But the Lions were playing the Packers, so the Bears could have tied them a few days later if the Lions won. (The Lions did win that game, 40-10.)
In 1993, the Lions were 7-3 on Thanksgiving Day, so the game wouldn’t have made a difference to their position.
If the Lions win their division in 2016, they could finally host their first playoff game in Detroit since 1993.
5. Matthew Stafford Hasn’t Thrown an Interception on Thanksgiving Since 2013
Quarterback Matthew Stafford stated his seventh Thanksgiving Day game today. He’s having a pretty good season so far, with 2,651 yards, 18 touchdowns and just five interceptions at the start of the day.
In his six previous Thanksgiving Day starts, the Lions were 3-3 and Stafford hasn’t thrown an interception in the Thanksgiving game since 2013. He’s had nine interceptions and thrown for 1,987 yards and 14 touchdowns in all six starts.
Stafford didn’t throw an interception in the game and threw for 232 yards, with one touchdown.
Overall, the Lions are 37-38-2 on Thanksgiving Day and have won three consecutive games. They beat the Philadelphia Eagles 45-14 last year.