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A look at the history of the NFL on Thanksgiving Day

(AP Photo / Rick Ostentoski)

Watching some football and eating more food than your stomach could ever handle. Does it get any better than that?

Having games on Thanksgiving Day is one of the NFL’s oldest traditions, dating back to the 1920s and 1930s for some of the league’s most storied franchises.

Teams like the Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions have become staples of the holiday routine for families across the country, and the addition of a third game at night in recent years has made Thanksgiving dessert taste much sweeter for football fans.

>>RELATED: Breaking down the NFL’s 2021 Thanksgiving Day slate

The Lions have hosted a Thanksgiving Day game on a consistent basis since 1934, with a stretch from 1939 through 1944 during World War II representing the team’s lone hiatus from what is now a historic tradition.

Meanwhile, the Cowboys have hosted their own games on Thanksgiving Day since 1966, missing just two years in 1975 and 1977.

From 1970 to 2005, football fans would see just two other teams on Thanksgiving Day, with the Cowboys, Lions, one other NFC team, and one AFC team completing the holiday’s fray for 35 years.

Lions fans got accustomed to seeing their favorite team as the holiday’s opener in the 12:30 p.m. ET timeslot, with the Cowboys generally taking the 4:15 p.m. ET spot to make up for the one-hour time difference.

Those who ate their meals early would generally watch the Lions, with a 37-42-2 all-time record on the holiday, lose, while the Cowboys, with a 31-21-1 all-time Thanksgiving Day record, would give fans something to chew on during later dinners.

In 2006, the third Thanksgiving Day game was added, with the Kansas City Chiefs hosting the Denver Broncos to kick off the league’s new holiday tripleheader.

Fresh faces fill the field for the league’s third game on an annual basis, giving some teams the chance to take center stage on Thanksgiving Day.

>>RELATED: Pick-Six: Best Thanksgiving Day games in NFL history

The need for the Cowboys or Lions to host an NFC opponent when playing their Thanksgiving Day games on FOX, combined with the years NFC North and NFC East team play the AFC North, leads to an awkward situation for the four AFC North teams, and a positive reason for that primetime game.

An AFC North team was last featured against the Cowboys or Lions in 1998, when the Lions and Pittsburgh Steelers battled on the holiday. Now, fans of the Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, Cincinnati Bengals, and Cleveland Browns have to hope their team gets picked for Thanksgiving Day’s nighttime main event.

With that annual scheduling format, it’s not surprising to see the Lions and Cowboys on top of the all-time Thanksgiving Day standings from a wins perspective. The Lions top the list with 37 wins on the holiday, with the Cowboys inching closer in second place with 31 wins.

The Chicago Bears, a popular Thanksgiving Day opponent, clocks in with a respectable 19-15-2 all-time record to take third place, while the Green Bay Packers, with a 14-20-2 record, slide into fourth.

But, from a win percentage standpoint, it’s tough to beat the New Orleans Saints, who, heading into their 2021 battle with the Buffalo Bills, had a perfect three wins in three Thanksgiving Day appearances. The Ravens and Houston Texans each have two wins in their two games, respectively, while the Carolina Panthers round out the bunch with a flawless 1-0 record.

The lone teams without a win on Thanksgiving Day are the Bengals, Browns, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Jacksonville Jaguars. Luckily (or sadly) for Jaguars fans, they have the excuse that they’ve been been selected to play on the holiday.

As easy as it is to focus on the teams that are (or aren’t playing, and the wins and losses, the true fun comes with the pageantry of it all.

>>RELATED: Touchdowns and turkeys: Former NFL players explain how it feels to play in league’s Thanksgiving Day games

The props in the TV studios and at each of the three stadiums, the halftime shows, the old-school uniforms. Even without the action on the field, it’s tough to beat Thanksgiving Day football.

So, as you dig in on some of your favorite dishes or desserts and enjoy some quality time with your family and friends, remember to recognize how great it is to be watching the NFL on Thanksgiving Day.

What’s your favorite part of the NFL’s Thanksgiving Day games? Let us know by following @SOTSports on Twitter or by liking our Facebook page!

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