When Underdog Detroit Roared: Lions’ Top 5 Thanksgiving Day Upsets

Reggie Bush

Getty Reggie Bush celebrates a score with Nate Burleson in 2013 on Thanksgiving.

The Detroit Lions have played longer than any other team on Thanksgiving Day, and given the team hasn’t won a championship since 1957 and never seen a Super Bowl, they are always decided underdogs.

Still, that doesn’t mean that the Lions aren’t capable of winning some big games on the holiday. In 2022, the team will once again be seen as major underdogs, given the 7-3 Buffalo Bills roll into town to take on the 4-6 Lions.

History shows the Lions do have the ability to rise up as underdogs against some great teams, and summon some magical power on their special day. It’s happened more than a handful of times in history, meaning it can happen again.

What games represent the most special upsets for the Lions? Here’s a look at some moments fans will never forget in the Motor City that few people ever saw coming at the time.


Lions Over Bills (1994)

One of the NFL’s teams of the 1990s was Buffalo, considering all of the Super Bowls the team made as well as playoff success. None of that meant a great deal in a tough 1994-95 season for the Bills, however.

Detroit, looking to save their season and stay in the hunt, drilled the Bills at home 35-21. Barry Sanders was bottled up for the most part with just 45 yards and one touchdown, but quarterback Dave Kreig threw three touchdown passes and Detroit intercepted Jim Kelly twice and Thurman Thomas was slowed with just 58 yards rushing.


1994 Bills at Lions Week 13Thursday, November 24, 1994 Happy Thanksgiving! Bills were favored by 1.5 Over/Under: 392021-11-22T20:00:01Z

It was a special day for the Lions, who would end up 9-7 and making the playoffs before bowing out in the first round. Still, they used the momentum from this game to win four out of five to get into the postseason.


Lions Over Packers (2003)

The Lions’ Thanksgiving win in 2000 was the last for a few years for the team, and Detroit hadn’t done anything on the holiday since blasting the pre-dynasty Patriots 34-9 at the turn of the century.

Looking to end a two year drought, the Lions hosted their nemesis the Packers, who enjoyed a solid end to the 1990s with Super Bowl wins and appearances as well as divisional success. Detroit never had much of an answer for Brett Favre, but they did on this day, picking him three times with two of the interceptions coming from Dre Bly.


2003 Packers at Lions Week 13Thursday, November 27, 2003 Happy Thanksgiving! Packers were favored by 6.5 Over/Under: 442021-08-03T23:00:30Z

Detroit scored only one offensive touchdown on the day, but used a barrage of Jason Hanson field goals after Favre’s sloppy play to hold off the Packers 22-14. Green Bay would finish 10-6 and make the playoffs, winning a game.


Lions Over Packers (2013)

Stunningly, the win in 2003 was Detroit’s last Thanksgiving win in 10 years entering this game. Starving for a win amid a chorus of nonsensical calls that the team should lose their special game, the Lions stepped up against a solid Packers team that had won a Super Bowl the year prior.

Detroit dusted Green Bay 40-10 in a game that was never close. Green Bay turned the ball over three times and Matthew Stafford threw for 330 yards and three scores. Reggie Bush rushed for 117 yards and a score, and Calvin Johnson hauled in six passes for 101 yards and a score.


Packers vs Lions 2013 Week 13All rights go to ESPN, Fox, CBS, NBC, the NFL & its broadcasters. I do not own the music and the footage used in this video. No copyright infringement intended. For entertainment purposes only.2019-06-22T18:40:26Z

Finally, Detroit had reason to celebrate on their big holiday once again, and it was a feeling of relief.


Lions Over Steelers (1983)

Pittsburgh had one of the NFL’s best dynasties throughout the 1970s, so to say it was a surprise to see the veteran Steelers blown out is an understatement. That’s just what Hall of Famers Franco Harris, Mel Blount, Mike Webster, Jack Lambert and Donnie Shell were, however.

Detroit got a huge day from running back Billy Sims, who rushed for 106 yards and two touchdowns to lead in a 45-3 drubbing.


1983-11-24 Pittsburgh Steelers vs Detroit LionsThe world needs more Billy Sims. Particularly on Thanksgiving Day. I've got only one Sims Thanksgiving day game left and that's for another year. The Steelers were favored going into this one but it didn't really turn out that way.2019-11-27T01:00:05Z

The Steelers would finish the season at 10-6 and make the playoffs, and the upstart Lions would go 9-7 to do the same. Neither team won while there, however, and the Steelers started trending downward as their stars aged off the team in coming years. It was still a shock to see Detroit beat such a successful roster, though.


Lions Over Packers (1962)

Perhaps the biggest upset ever on Thanksgiving came for the Lions in 1962. Coached by Vince Lombardi, the Packers came into their own as a championship dynasty in the 1960s, while the Lions were trending backward a bit after dominating the 1950s.

None of that mattered in this game, however. Green Bay, the eventual 1962 NFL Champions and one of the greatest teams in league history, were stunningly upset on the day by the Lions 26-14. It would represent their only loss in a 13-1 season.


#6 "Thanksgiving Day Massacre" Lions Dominate Packers | Top 10 Thanksgiving Day Moments | NFL FilmsThe Detroit Lions dominate the undefeated Green Bay Packers on Thanksgiving Day 1962. Subscribe to NFL Films: goo.gl/XJTggL Start your free trial of NFL Game Pass: nfl.com/gamepass?campaign=sp-nf-gd-ot-yt-3000342 Check out our other channels: NFL Network youtube.com/nflnetwork NFL youtube.com/nfl Watch NFL Now: nfl.com/now Listen to NFL podcasts: nfl.com/podcasts Watch the NFL network: nflnonline.nfl.com/ Download the NFL mobile…2016-11-24T01:52:47Z

Detroit intercepted Bart Starr twice, and got a two touchdown day from Milt Plum to claim one of the biggest wins in franchise history. It still represents one of the greatest upsets in NFL history, and is proof anything can happen on Thanksgiving.


Honorable Mention: Lions Over Raiders (1970)

The title of NFL’s team of the 1970s would end up be a duel between the Raiders and the Steelers, so for the Lions to be able to knock off the Raiders was a special feat indeed. They did it on Thanksgiving Day 1970.


1970 Raiders at Lions week 112020-10-02T08:50:16Z

John Madden’s 6-2-2 Raiders started with a quick 14-0 lead after a pair of Fred Biletnikoff scores, but powered by Charlie Sanders’ two touchdowns and a Mel Farr score, the Lions won 28-14 in Al Davis’s first visit into an NFL stadium after the NFL-AFL merger.

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