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Pick-Six: Best Thanksgiving Day games in NFL history

(AP Photo / LM Otero)

Thanksgiving Day tends to be known for three things: family, food, and football.

For some celebrating the holiday, that order may need to be rearranged, especially if the NFL puts on a great slate of games throughout the day.

Football is a sport of longstanding tradition when it comes to Thanksgiving, and fans of the Dallas Cowboys, Detroit Lions and the Washington Football Team are able to factor in their favorite team when mapping out their holiday schedules every year.

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Each of those teams has played an important role in the NFL’s Thanksgiving Day history, taking part in some of the holiday’s best games of all time.

Other franchises that may not have that same, consistent schedule are aware of the stage they’re playing on when they do land a Thanksgiving Day game, and tend to play up to a certain caliber whenever they get their opportunity.

So, to celebrate the holiday and all of its fixings, it’s time to count down the best Thanksgiving Day games in NFL history.

6. Houston Texans vs. Detroit Lions, Thanksgiving Day 2012

Those blue Detroit Lions uniforms have become a staple of the NFL’s Thanksgiving Day games, and apparently a mediocre record has turned into another.

On Thanksgiving Day in 2012, the 4-6 Lions hosted the 9-1 Houston Texans in a clash of top-tier wide receivers and powerful defensive linemen.

It was a battle of Johnson’s in the passing game, as Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson and Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson both went off in their respective offenses.

The former put up 140 receiving yards with a touchdown, while the latter recorded 188 receiving yards of his own.

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Despite the presence of J.J. Watt, Matthew Stafford lit up the Texans’ defense with 441 passing yards and two touchdowns. On the other end, the Texans killed it in the running game, with Arian Foster and Justin Forsett combining for more than 200 rushing yards.

In the end, the Texans pulled it out with a field goal in overtime to win a 34-31 shootout on the road. Fast-forward eight years, and these two teams will meet once more in 2020, with the Lions holding a 4-6 record yet again and the Texans coming in at 3-7.

5. Green Bay Packers vs. Detroit Lions, Thanksgiving Day 1986

As an old Nike commercial once said, “Chicks dig the longball.” In this case, football fans love touchdowns, and they got plenty when the Green Bay Packers took on the Detroit Lions in 1986.

The two teams put on the second-highest scoring game in Thanksgiving Day history, combining for 84 points in a back-and-forth battle. The Lions jumped out to a 10-point lead in the first quarter, and the Packers themselves went into halftime with a 10-point lead of their own.

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The Lions went up 40-30 in the fourth quarter on a 19-yard field goal from Eddie Murray, all before the Packers put up 14 unanswered points to thwart Detroit’s holiday plans.

An 83-yard punt return from Walter Stanley sealed the deal for Green Bay, concluding an absolute classic on Thanksgiving Day.

4. Baltimore Ravens vs. Pittsburgh Steelers, Thanksgiving Day 2013

Many remember the Thanksgiving Day matchup between the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers in 2013 for one specific play, rather than the closely-contested war that the game turned into in the end.

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin’s apparent attempt at tripping Ravens wide receiver Jacoby Jones near the sideline on a kickoff return became one of the most notable moments from that 2013 entire season, and added another wrinkle to their historic rivalry.

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But, the game should be remembered for its 22-20 final score, and a failed two-point conversion from the Steelers with 1:03 to go that could have tied the game late and sent the game to overtime.

These two teams tend to create magic whenever they match up on a holiday, whether it was Thanksgiving Day in 2013 or a Christmas Day battle in 2016. So, it made sense that the NFL put these two teams in the primetime spot for the league’s Thanksgiving Day slate in 2020.

3. Chicago Bears vs. Detroit Lions, Thanksgiving Day 1980

The NFL has become accustomed to complaints from fans related to the league’s overtime rules, which allow a team to win the game without their opponent even touching the ball in that extra frame.

So, you can imagine how upset Detroit Lions fans were when their overtime hopes on Thanksgiving Day in 1980 ended in just 16 seconds, before either offense could even step onto the field.

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Chicago Bears fans, on the other hand, likely felt like they were on top of the world, as their hometown team bounced back from a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit to tie the game at 17 and send the game to overtime.

Then, when the Lions kicked the ball off to start overtime, Bears return man Dave Williams took it 95 yards to give Chicago a 23-17 win.

It was one of the shortest overtime periods in NFL history, and goes down as one of the best games to ever take place on Thanksgiving Day.

2. Dallas Cowboys vs. Miami Dolphins, Thanksgiving Day 1993

It’s not often that anyone gets to see snow on Thanksgiving Day, let alone on the field for an NFL game.

But, fans got to experience just that when a storm took over the Dallas-Fort Worth area in 1993, leading to one of the league’s most memorable Thanksgiving Day games of all time.

The Dallas Cowboys and Miami Dolphins didn’t run up the score in this one, combining for just 30 points throughout the game. But, Cowboys fans remembered it simply as the “Leon Lett game,” specifically for a blunder made with less than five minutes to go in the fourth quarter.

Down 14-13 with just a few seconds to go in regulation, the Dolphins sent out kicker Pete Stoyanovich to attempt a field goal that would’ve given them a two-point lead to win the game. But, the Cowboys’ special teams unit came up big, blocking the kick and sending the crowd into a frenzy.

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All the Cowboys had to do was stay away from the bouncing ball in order to win the game. But, as Cowboys players waived their teammates off, defensive lineman Leon Lett attempted to recover the loose ball, instead paving the way for a Dolphins recovery and a second field goal attempt.

Stoyanovich took advantage of the blunder, and knocked one through the uprights to win it for Miami.

On a day with so much history for the Cowboys, the game goes down as one of the most memorable in Thanksgiving Day history because of a Lett-induced letdown.

1. Dallas Cowboys vs. Washington Football Team, Thanksgiving Day 1974

Dallas Cowboys legend Roger Staubach will go down as one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever step onto the field. But, it was his rookie backup that put together one of the most historic comebacks in franchise history in 1974.

As the Cowboys took on the Washington Football Team on Thanksgiving Day, Staubach exited the game with an injury in the third quarter, apparently a result from a $200 bounty that had been set for a Washington player to take him out of the game.

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Down 16-3, Dallas sent out rookie quarterback Clint Longley, who had never taken an NFL snap, to take over in the legend’s place.

On that Thanksgiving Day, Longley didn’t disappoint. He threw a 35-yard touchdown pass to Billy Joe DuPree on his first drive to cut the deficit to six points, and managed to give the Cowboys a 17-16 lead by the end of the third quarter.

After Washington took the lead right back in the fourth quarter, Longley completed the comeback by delivering a 50-yard touchdown pass to Drew Pearson with less than 30 seconds left in regulation for the win.

The Cowboys failed to make the playoffs that season, and the year as a whole is forgettable for the franchise in the grand scheme of things. But, the Longley-led comeback on that day in 1974 will be remembered forever, and tops this list of the NFL’s best Thanksgiving Day games of all time.

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