Football and Thanksgiving go together like turkey and mashed potatoes.
This year’s slate of games features all NFC teams. And all three games are divisional matchups.
The Chicago Bears will visit the Detroit Lions (12:30 p.m. ET, CBS), and the Philadelphia Eagles are set to square off against the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving for the first time in 25 years (4:30 p.m., FOX).
The traditional holiday games in Detroit and Dallas are enough to satisfy any NFL fan’s appetite. But football aficionados must make sure to leave room for the first showdown this season between the defending champion Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers at Levi’s Stadium (8:30 p.m., NBC).
With three entertaining matchups on the horizon, it’s certainly possible that one of those games will even manage to match the level of excitement of the 10 included in this list.
Without further adieu, here are the 10 greatest Thanksgiving Day games of all-time.
No. 10: Lions 44, Vikings 38 (1995)
Scott Mitchell has gained attention this fall as a contestant on The Biggest Loser.
But he wasn’t a loser on Thanksgiving in 1995. He led the Lions to their third of seven straight victories that catapulted them into the playoffs after a 3-6 start. Mitchell threw four touchdown passes and his 410 passing yards set a franchise record at the time.
Detroit squandered a 21-7 second-quarter lead, but Jason Hanson’s field goal and Herman Moore’s 27-yard touchdown reception gave the Lions the lead back near the end of the third quarter. Barry Sanders, who rushed for 138 yards, increased the Lions’ lead to 41-31 with a 50-yard touchdown run with just over five minutes left in the game.
But the Vikings had Cris Carter, and all he ever did was catch touchdowns. He caught his second of the game to slash the Lions’ lead to 41-38. Hanson then kicked his third field goal, so the Vikings needed a touchdown on their final possession. They almost produced one, but Moon was intercepted in the end zone as time ran out.
No. 9: Packers 44, Lions 40 (1986)
As long as neither team collapses, this year’s showdown between the Lions and Packers at Lambeau Field in Week 17 will likely decide which squad finishes atop the NFC North.
The stakes weren’t nearly as high when they met on Thanksgiving in 1986, and that’s why this game isn’t ranked higher. The Packers entered the game 2-10 and the Lions were 5-7, but the teams crammed a season’s worth of thrills into one Thanksgiving afternoon.
The Lions led 10-0 in the first quarter, then fell behind 23-13 in the second quarter. They tied the game 23-23 in the third quarter and jumped out to a 37-23 lead. They still led 40-30 with a little over five minutes left.
Then Randy Wright tossed an 11-yard touchdown pass to Paul Ott Carruth, and Walter Stanley returned a punt 83 yards for the winning touchdown with less than a minute to play. It was Stanley’s third touchdown of the game, half of the six he scored during the entirety of his eight-year career.
It was the highest-scoring Thanksgiving Day game in Detroit since 1951.
No. 8: Packers 29, Lions 27 (2001)
Since the Packers are the Lions’ most frequent Thanksgiving opponent, it makes sense that two Packers-Lions games are on this list. This game ranks higher because of how close the 0-9 Lions came to stunning the mighty Packers.
Brett Favre, in the midst of his sixth Pro Bowl season, threw two touchdown passes to help the (6-3) Packers jump out to a 24-13 lead after three quarters. Green Bay added to its lead when Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila sacked Charlie Batch at the Lions’ 1-yard line and forced a fumble. The Lions recovered in the end zone and surrendered a safety.
Those two points would come back to haunt Detroit, although it didn’t seem that way when Ryan Longwell kicked a 39-yard field goal to make it 29-13 with 7:46 left in the game.
Mike McMahon replaced Batch and put together an 18-play, 70-yard drive that Lamont Warren finished off with a 1-yard touchdown run. McMahon scrambled for the two-point conversion, making the score 29-21 with 1:20 remaining.
The Lions recovered the onside kick, but faced 4th-and-8 with 18 seconds left. McMahon threw a 29-yard touchdown pass to Scotty Anderson, but this time he missed Cory Schlesinger on the two-point attempt. Darren Sharper pounced on the onside kick that followed, and the Packers survived in their final visit to the Pontiac Silverdome.
This was the Lions’ only Thanksgiving loss to the Packers in their old stadium. They’re 12-8-1 all-time against Green Bay on the holiday.
No. 7: Oilers 30, Cowboys 24 (1979)
What a Thanksgiving smorgasbord this was.
There was the traditional helping of America’s Team, and the Luv Ya Blue Oilers made it even tastier.
The Houston Oilers and Dallas Cowboys played in different conferences despite playing in the same state, and they rarely faced each other. Seeing these two 1970s cultural icons on the same field was a rare treat. It was the first time Bum Phillips and his 10-gallon hat stood on the opposite sideline from Tom Landry and his fedora.
The Cowboys had too much on their plate trying to stop Earl Campbell. The Oilers’ Hall of Fame running back gobbled up 195 rushing yards and scored two touchdowns. And the constant battling between him and LB Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson was extremely entertaining to watch.
Then came three lead changes in the second half. The Cowboys led 24-23 and forced the Oilers to punt from the Dallas 37-yard line with eight minutes left in the game. But the Cowboys had 12 men on the field, which gave the Oilers a first down. Dan Pastorini took advantage right away with a 32-yard touchdown pass to Ken Burrough, which would go on to be the game-winner.
Roger Staubach, playing in his final season, threw two touchdown passes for the Cowboys.
Had the Pittsburgh Steelers not stood in the Oilers’ way, a Super Bowl or two might have made the Oilers and Cowboys more frequent opponents in the 1970s. It turns out that both teams fell short of the Super Bowl in 1979. The Oilers lost at Pittsburgh in the AFC title game for the second straight year, and the Rams stunned the Cowboys at Dallas in the NFC divisional playoffs.
Since this game was a potential Super Bowl preview, it’s ahead of the Packers-Lions clashes. But it ranks behind the rest as there were no game-changing swings in the final minutes.
No. 6: Lions 19, Steelers 16 (OT) (1998)
Maybe Jerome Bettis was trying to invent a word that sounded like both “heads” and “tails,” like “teds” or “hails.”
As far as Pittsburgh is concerned, though, referee Phil Luckett botched the overtime coin toss and has a special place next to Sid Bream and Jaromir Jagr in the hearts of Pittsburgh sports fans.
The coin came up tails. Bettis said that’s what he called. But that’s not what Luckett heard, and the Steelers never saw the ball in overtime.
Charlie Batch, who a decade later would become one of the more beloved athletes in Pittsburgh lore, moved the Lions 41 yards. And Jason Hanson kicked the game-winning, 42-yard field goal.
The Steelers blew a 13-3 third-quarter lead and needed a 25-yard field goal from Norm Johnson with four seconds left just to force overtime.
The coin toss controversy isn’t the only reason the Lions should have been thankful for the Thanksgiving win. They didn’t win another game for the rest of the season and finished 5-11.
Pittsburgh didn’t win another game, either, and finished with five straight losses to drop to 7-9.
This game wasn’t as wildly entertaining as some of the others on this list, but the infamous coin flip made it memorable enough to crack the top 10.